July 29, 2014
Open Letter to Adults from a Highly Creative Child
A highly creative child who is often misunderstood responds productively to adult comments, and provides ideas on how teachers and parents can help.
I’m confused. Sometimes adults tell me that I’ve done something really creative, and that my unique thoughts might help solve the world’s problems. But often you say other things about me, like I’m a dreamer and I have a hard time paying attention, or that I need to apply myself. When you say these things, I’m not sure what you mean because I see myself differently. But when I hear the comments so often, I start to doubt myself, too. So I’m writing this letter to give you my responses to the things that adults say, and to share a few ideas about how you might be able to help me be my best self at home and at school.
“He’s smart, he’s just acting lazy.”
Have you seen me on the floor of my room, building intricate creations with Lego bricks? Or in the garage, making inventions with found materials and repurposing electronics? Or at my computer, surviving in customized Minecraft worlds that I build myself? This may look like play, but it is the work of my creativity. Creating is the ideal educational objective in Bloom’s revised taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002), thereby positioning creativity as the ultimate level of thinking.
My imagination is fertile, my motivation is high. But when you give me an endless flow of tasks that skip over my ability and desire to explore and to think original thoughts, I just can’t connect. I need you to help me see why it matters to me, or how I might actually use this math in real life. I love to build. There’s your starting point. Give me an authentic project, ask me to solve a problem that might help make the world a better place. Motivate me to use my own unique gifts, and I promise that over time I will deliver! Even in her early research, Theresa Amabile (1987) found that when people are intrinsically motivated they will do their most creative work.
“He has a hard time paying attention.”
Yes, it’s true. But only when I am required to sit at a desk for hour upon hour every day doing work that that doesn’t relate to what I’m really good at—imagining, delighting in discovery, creating. Put yourself in my shoes, and ask the hard question: If your job required you to do tasks that ignored your greatest assets, how engaged would you be over time?
On the other hand, I sure can attend for hours when I’m curled up with a big book unfolding a story of clever, adventurous children or tales of history. I can spend an entire afternoon with paints and brushes and blank white sheets of paper, or digging rivers in the mud outside and watching the path of water flow through. When a mind works like mine, it is always moving— exploring, inventing, experimenting, making up problems and solving them. A diet heavy on single-answer (algorithmic) problems misses out on my greatest strengths. If they don’t pose the right kind of challenge, my mind wanders to places that do. Please, I beg you, engage the depth of my mind. To do that, you might give me some heuristic challenges—problems to solve that are open-ended, or that require search and discovery to find the solution (Amabile, 1987).
“She’s a daydreamer. She doesn’t have a brain in her head.”
There’s a constant chorus of teachers and parents telling me to get out of my head and come back to earth. I’ve learned to tune out this refrain until it is faint background chatter, because it’s only in my thoughts that I’m allowed to be fully me. In my mind, I play with ideas, investigate “what-ifs,” paint image stories, and imagine possibilities. When I am not asked to contribute these thoughts, I have to mentally retreat to do what I do best. Help support me to take action with my creative daydreams by appreciating what is going on in my head, and aid me in finding pathways for self expression.
“If you’d only apply yourself . . .”
Apply myself to what? I invent, I imagine, I explore. Play to me is hard and satisfying work. I can be your greatest asset, but all you are asking for is better handwriting (I prefer to type when my thoughts move more quickly than my hands) and faster regurgitation of facts that you and I both know we can Google. Ask me questions that let me soar with original thinking instead of crashing headlong into the “right” answer. Help me to articulate and apply my values and passions to power my learning.
“Stop dilly-dallying. Just get it done. If you would just work faster . . .”
The shortest distance between two points might be a straight line, but my mind works in spirals and spaghetti pathways. That’s the only way I can navigate many ideas at once, putting concepts together, sensing problems, and solving them. Einstein said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” If I simply went from A to B, I’d miss out on the possible combinations and ideas that no one’s thought of before. You call me slow, you say my processing speed is below average. But I am observing, I am combining and synthesizing knowledge and ideas with every turn, keeping open to possibilities. Please, don’t make me take the A to B path like everybody else. You’re going to need the way I think to solve the big problems! Like Torrance (1995) said, “The future of our civilization depends upon the quality of the creative imagination of our next generation” (p. 24).
“You should pick something and stick with it.”
I love to explore. I love fresh ideas. I know you’d prefer that I play soccer all four years of high school so that I can become expert, but I prefer to dabble. Be careful to support my unique interests, not just the ones expected by society. Each new experience gives me new ideas, which help me make connections. When I grow up and look back, I’ll bet that the ability to be open to trying new things will serve me well, especially since my generation is expected not only to switch careers dozens of times, but to create our own jobs. The freedom to chart my own course motivates me and will help me to sustain momentum over time.
I really want to please you. I also want to be me. Maybe we can work together so that I can do both at once? Thanks for listening, and thanks for loving me just the way I am.
Your Highly Creative Child
Amabile, T. (1987). The motivation to be creative. In Isaksen, S.G. (Ed.), Frontiers of creativity research: Beyond the basics (pp. 223-254). Buffalo, NY: Bearly Limited.
Krathwohl, D.R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice,41(4), 212-218.
Torrance, E.P. (1995). Why fly?: A philosophy of creativity. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.