How this late visionary reminded me to play
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things…”
As we celebrate the legacy of Steve Jobs, Apple’s “Think Different” campaign comes to mind. Steve Jobs saw things differently. In an address to the Stanford graduating class of 2005, he spoke about a calligraphy class he sat in on after he dropped out of college, “It [calligraphy] was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.”
In his now-famous Stanford speech he explained, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards.”
As a parent, it’s important to remember that I can’t connect the dots looking forward either. I don’t know what or who or when something is going to inspire my children.
Last summer, Newsweek ran a cover story called, “The Creativity Crisis,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The article broke the news that a professor had analyzed decades of results from a standardized creativity test and found that scores have been on a steady decline since 1990 – particularly among kindergarten through sixth graders. The causes? While no one is quite sure, the media and blogosphere usually point to the same culprits. Some kids are overscheduled. Some children watch too much TV and play on computers for too long. Most schools have been too focused on test scores. No one plays outside enough.
But after reading the story, I started discovering something I’m sure is part of the problem, at least in my own house: As a parent, I can be kind of a creativity buzzkill.
A couple months ago, my three-year-old asked me for a Cheddar cheese and jelly sandwich. I said no. It sounded gross, and I was worried he’d take just one bite and throw it out. But, in retrospect, stores sometimes sell fancy fig spreads near the Camembert and Brie. Maybe he was on to something? Maybe I blew his chance of ever making Top Chef.
My refusal to make my son his sandwich reminds me of a link that one of my favorite bloggers, Amy Webb, PhD, of “The Thoughtful Parent,” sent me. It was an interview on PBS’ The Parent Show with noted astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. To cultivate curiosity in children, he said, one must “get out of the way.”
“I think parents get in the way of kids’ curiosity. They go up to a flower, maybe pluck the petals off: and you say, ‘Don’t pluck the petals, I just paid for that.’ No. You just stopped them from investigating what’s in the middle of a flower.”
I’ve actually said the words, “Don’t pluck the petals.” Dr. Tyson would give me a ‘D’ in flower exploration. And while I have many more examples, in the interest of time, I’ll just give you one more:
After a rainstorm, my kids and some friends were playing out back. While I was off pampering myself (a.k.a going to the bathroom alone), they grabbed towels out of the linen closet. Then, they built a fort in the backyard. If they had asked me, there’s no way I would have let them use my nice-ish towels. But, since they didn’t ask me (for which, I’ll be honest, they were reprimanded), they played inside the fort for a long time. It was imaginative play! And I hadn’t even paid our local community center – the one that offers all the fancy extracurricular activities!
I’ve thought about how many creative moments I’ve tried to engineer for my kids by signing them up for music classes or buying them puppets or taking them to museums, but maybe the biggest help I can be to them is, as Dr. Tyson said, just getting out of their way sometimes.
This means I need to work on saying “no” less. It means that as long as my kids aren’t causing damage or harm, as long as they’re not hurting themselves or others, as long as they’re not acting cruelly and as long as they’re not using glitter (sorry I have to draw the line somewhere), I’m trying to be more go-with-the-flow.
If Steve Jobs, one of the most creative minds of all time, had been my child, might I have tried to stop him from taking the class that ended up changing technology as we know it? Yes. And while his anecdote doesn’t tell me to act cool if my kids one day decide to drop out of college (should they go in the first place), it does tell me that as a parent, I don’t know what’s going to inspire my children, and I can’t connect the dots.
So part of my job – for many reasons – is to let them experience as much as possible of the good, fun kid stuff. Making gross sandwiches. Catching fireflies. Jumping in puddles. And, even if it means creating an extra load of laundry for me, building forts. I still have a picture of that fort, by the way. I took it with – what else? – my iPhone.