Creativity is the ability to bring about something new. Somewhat counterintuitively, structure, rules, and standards invite creativity. Aristotle, Plato, and the Scriptures tell us to “train up” a child. Aristotle, referencing Plato, emphasizes the importance of “having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means” (Nicomachean Ethics Book 2, 1104b).
But we, fearing we will damage our children if we correct them, make them eat what we made for dinner, or make them do their homework even when the book is boring, are more inclined to let our children go free. Today’s parents want creative children, but fostering creativity seems to fly in the face of time-honored parenting values like structure, discipline, consistency, and a communally-centered home (rather than a child-centered home). We have disconnected freedom from responsibility and live in an age which values self-fulfillment over authority and obedience.
Let’s take dinnertime as an example. You may be tempted to say to your three-year-old, “What would you like for dinner tonight?” This may be easy when you have one child. It will quickly turn into enervating chaos with the addition of more children and turn the blessing of preparing a family meal into servitude.
You have more going on in your life than cooking what your child wants, and you did not go through all the trouble of growing up to eat to a child’s tastes. In fact, cooking what you enjoy or have time to make teaches your three-year-old she is no longer in control of you, your body, or the house. Three-year-olds will feign all sorts of illnesses and sadness to win this struggle, and they can really work the guilt for working moms. When we give a three-year-old whatever he wants, we are just postponing that child’s battle with his desires until a time in which he will find the fight far more difficult. The invitation to choose dinner is a special treat, and when every meal is special, no meal is special. Yet, many families persist in this lifestyle out of fear of destroying their child’s individuality and creativity.
A short culture piece in Wired Magazine on the cell phone antenna changed my thinking about creativity. This will sound familiar if you were a cell phone owner in the early days—you had to extend the antenna on your phone for good reception. Cell phone engineers got creative because the laws of physics, working against aesthetics and convenience, required a seven-inch antenna. They figured out they could stamp a curved antenna on a plastic plate inside the phone. That was not enough creativity though. With an internal antenna, the user’s hand blocked the signal. Nokia engineers weighted and tapered the phone to cause users to hold it below the antenna. Part of the back of the phone was plastic rather than metal to allow the signal to pass through it. The creativity of the cell phone exists because designers had to work within and against the laws of physics. Without these restrictions there would have been no creativity.
Examples abound. I attended an all-boy boarding school as a high schooler. The best pranks? They were the ones which ingeniously and mysteriously got around both the rules and the authorities. They were the ones which inspired wonder. One of my favorites: seeing the entire school walk into a dining hall without tables or chairs and with all the settings on the floor.
Let’s go back to the dinnertime example. When a child always gets what he wants, he learns to be rigid. “Why be flexible when the world always bends to my desires?” What do children do when faced with food they dislike? They get creative. The good or compliant child might play some sort of mind game to get the food down—“mind over matter.” The adventurous might creatively find a way to get some of the peas into the dog’s mouth without mom, dad, or siblings noticing. With great creativity, they may try to get the food into the trashcan without being seen. Want to oversee the creative development of a faster way to sweep the floor? Assign a regular sweeping chore in your house. Structure fosters creativity within bounds.
Children who are accustomed to always getting what they want learn to be lazy, tyrannical, and rigid. Without structure, rules, and expectations, they have no reason to be creative because their parents always bend the world to fit their will. Good homes and schools provide structure which forms children in habits, proper loves, and creativity, teaching them that they were created for a greater purpose than themselves! We had best follow the philosophers in this.