We have great hopes for our children’s lives.
We want them to love well, so we create opportunities for them to serve others.
We want them to be wise, so we invest hours in purposeful, thoughtful conversation.
We want them to desire truth and goodness, so we offer tantalizing tastes of the eternal banquet found in story, art, and music.
Children frolic in the fields of imagination, working the fertile soil of words, paints, clay and sound. If given proper nourishment and time, beauty will flourish.
Despite my best intentions, however, I often sabotage the growing process. I hover over their creative endeavors. I offer assistance and direction. I block the light. I stunt their growth.
— — —
The conversation seemed innocent enough.
Son: “Mom, I think I want to be Gandalf for Halloween.”
Me: “Honey, That sounds great.”
Son: “And I want to make a staff that glows. One with a real tree limb that has a hole drilled in it, and an LED light with a switch that can turn it on and off.”
Me: “Are you sure you want to do that? It sounds like a lot of work.”
Me (internally): Here we go. The next several weeks will be hi-jacked with the creation of this staff. Endless conversations about the best way to drill a hole, the proper voltage of the light bulb, multiple trips to the hardware store. The result will be a house littered with tiny pieces of wire, multiple iterations of experimentation, and a very possible climax of real tears if the staff doesn’t light up. I’m tired just thinking about it.
Sheesh. Great mom.
— — —
Although a home environment conducive to creativity sounds lofty and ideal, in reality, it is costly. The currency required is time, emotional and mental energy, and the willingness to set our grown-up agendas aside. I’m grateful for my creative children – most days. But at times, I find myself tempted to curtail their inventive endeavors.
Recently, my daughter celebrated her ninth birthday. In the weeks preceding her party, she crafted a plan with the skill and precision of a theatrical producer. It was to be a balloon-themed birthday party. With a blue balloon cake surrounded by balloon cupcakes. The craft would be a bracelet made of pipe cleaners upon which, of course, balloons would be tied in various patterns. The décor – lots of balloons and a tie-dye birthday sign (which I should note, didn’t match an attempted color scheme). No detail was left unattended.
Although inspired by her imagination, I found myself increasingly frustrated. Do we really need to plan out such precise detail? Surely we could purchase a (insert your favorite character) themed party-in-a-box and be done with it. My daughter’s imagination was in direct conflict with my limping attempt at efficiency. I became less enchanted and more irritated. There must be an easier way.
As innovations are introduced into our lives, the culture is changed – often both for better and for worse. The iphone improves my efficiency, but it can be a distraction from the flesh-and-blood people who are standing right in front of me. I love the ease of Amazon.com, but miss the thrill of the hunt through library sales and used book stores to find a specific collectible book. Similarly, the introduction of Pinterest has changed the culture of parenting. Need a Halloween costume? Christmas craft? Valentine’s day card? Birthday party idea? We instinctively stop, drop, and run to Pinterest with the obedience of Pavlov’s dogs.
Do we even pause to consider allowing our children to start “from scratch”? To be content with their own creations without comparison to pinboards or our favorite crafty blogs? To give them the time and space to imagine freely, uncluttered by the ideas and endeavors of others?
No doubt, relying on the ingenuity of “experts” has its place. When an idea has been germinating and needs nourishment, the creative endeavors of others can provide needed inspiration. Rembrandt’s students, after all, spent years imitating the master in order to perfect technique before they created their own masterpieces. Or when life’s full schedule squeezes creativity from the top of the priority list. We. Just. Need. Help. Manna for the day can come in many forms, including access to an unlimited supply of ideas, recipes, and tutorials.
The caution is, however, not to let deference to others’ ideas become a way of life. In doing so, we are training our children to deaden their creative instincts. We are teaching them that their own creative efforts fall short. We hover over them with all our good intentions – perfect party favors, clever costumes, and immaculate artwork. The sound of our parental helicopter becomes so deafening, we can’t hear their small, beautiful, creative voices. Eventually, neither can they.
Too often, I find myself squelching the very family culture that I hope to create. A culture that is formed not from philosophical aspirations, but from innumerable everyday choices. A clean kitchen becomes more important than my daughter’s culinary creation. An efficient day trumps my son’s curiosity and ingenuity. The urgent becomes more important than the eternal.
I want to allow my children to grow, explore, and create. Yet I often lack the imagination to look through the inefficient messes to have vision for what could be. Or in reality, to see what beauty already exits.
What would it look like if I pulled back on the proverbial throttle in order make space and create a different family culture?
One that values creativity over efficiency.
One that values exploration over end product.
One that values the imagination of a child more than the opinion of others.
The goal is not to create an environment where children have no limits, guidance, or direction. And it’s not to perpetuate the modern myth that self-expresssion is the ultimate form (or goal) of creativity. Our children are children. They need their parents’ help in understanding their place in the world.
As much as I wish there were a formula to follow, parenting isn’t a science. Parenting is an imperfect, but beautiful, art.
I believe that the Father delights in every act of creation. In each mudpie, princess drawing, puppet show, crayon rainbow, bad-guy fort, and even in Gandalf’s glowing staff that turns on and off. I’m grateful for a Father who is the perfect parent to those of us who are imperfect parents. A Father who neither abandons nor hovers. A Father who gently leads those who have young.
— — —
In the weeks and months to come, here are a few ideas to try. My hope is that through these suggestions, you find inspiration, not guilt. Just as our children need room to live, dream, create, and fail, their parents do as well.
~ Allow a child to plan his/her own birthday party with minimal parental direction. Let them plan the details. Urge them to explore an unconventional theme. For younger children, a party based on a favorite color, animal, or food. For older children, a party based on a favorite book (or character from a book), activity, or vacation spot. Try to step back and let them play in the sandbox of possibilities.
~ Spend an afternoon in the kitchen cooking with your child. Don’t open a cookbook. Let the children pull out whatever ingredients sound good to them, and allow them to experiment.
~ Give your children the gifts of raw materials and unstructured time. Paints and paper, clay and kitchen tools, or a shovel for the backyard (space to be approved, of course). For a specified period of time, step back without giving instruction. Let them play.
~ Challenge your children to build from the things they overlook in the everyday. The more the merrier. Invite neighborhood friends and divide into teams. Set a timer, and give them thirty minutes to scour the house and garage for raw materials. Cardboard boxes of all sizes (from moving boxes to cereal boxes), cotton balls, duct tape, and coat hangers are some suggestion. At the end of the 30 minutes, leave them in a room alone (of course, younger children would require supervision) to create. Create a number of unique awards to grant to each team. (Particularly good for a rainy day.)