Can Creativity Be Taught?

Most of us have heard. The robots are coming for our jobs. We have to start working on our soft skills. Those things that humans are good at, but robots are not. Critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity are three of the topmost sought-after soft skills in the job market today and some of the few human-centered skills that will continue to be essential in the future as robots and automation take over.

But, how do you teach these things? How do you help your child become an independent thinker? Become more creative?

My sister and I are very different. I’m a designer; she’s an engineer. I love to read; she loves math. Most people who know us don’t understand how we’re related. But, we’re both creative problem solvers. We’re both critical thinkers.

I now realize that my parents had a lot to do with that.

Stop. Drop. And Think.

As a kid, it drove me nuts. But, now as an adult, I see what my dad was doing. Whenever we started any project — no matter if it was something small like bringing groceries in, or something big like painting the house — my dad wouldn’t let us start without thinking it through.

He’d grab you by the shoulders, “Now, wait. What is the best way to do this?” And he’d run through options. Should we form an assembly line? Should we divide and conquer the work? Should we break into teams? What would each person’s job be? What would be most efficient? What would be quickest? What would use the least energy?

Yeah, I’m sure you can see how it would drive an 8-year-old nuts. Or a 12-year-old. Or an 18-year-old. I’m much older now. He still does this.

Was it annoying? Yes.

Did it sink into my professional life and make me much better at critical thinking and creating efficient processes?

Hell yes, it did.

I never jump into anything without stopping to think it through first. Over the years, this has saved me time, money, and energy. And I’m pretty sure it makes me an asset in the workplace.

Make It Work, Kid

We didn’t grow up wanting for much. We were loved and well taken care of. But we were far from rich. We didn’t always have the exact right tool for every job. We didn’t always have the perfect ingredients for every meal. We didn’t always have the recommended supplies for every project.

And, now, I see how that was a good thing.

When we were building something or working on a school project, and we realized we needed a tool or a part, we didn’t run to the store to buy it. We didn’t order it on Amazon. We started digging. Looking through the storage shed, or the junk drawers, or the attic, until we found something that would work. Sometimes we had to make something out of something else.

It wasn’t always successful. Sometimes you really do need a special screwdriver or specific spice for a recipe, but I learned that oftentimes there is a creative solution if you just look hard enough.

Improvisation is an important part of any critical thinker’s skill set. And, when you don’t have what you need, that’s when a “make it work” attitude can really pay off.

I Don’t Know, What Do You Think?

Like most kids, I used my parents as if they were the walking talking version of Google. It didn’t matter if it was a homework question or something that just popped into my head; I would ask them for answers. My dad got stuck fielding most of the questions because he was home from work earlier than my mom.

No matter what it was, no matter if he knew the answer or not, he always said, “I don’t know.” Sometimes it was, “I don’t know look it up.” All run together — like it was one sentence.

It was especially frustrating when I was young because as kids, we are all impatient and just want answers. But, looking back, I see how all of those “I don’t knows” turned into us looking something up together in the encyclopedia (yes, I’m old), turned into long conversations about the subject, and turned into brainstorming sessions where we worked through possible answers.

By insisting that I find my own information, my parents taught me how to think through answers, gave me a love for new information, and showed me how to find reliable and trusted answers to my questions.

It’s hard as a parent, because it’s fun being the smart one, and everyone wants to help their children in any and every way possible. But sometimes, it’s sitting back and letting them work it out that is really helping them most.

On My Own

When we were kids, we didn’t have control over the TV. If mom or dad (or even the babysitter) was home, the TV was tuned into whatever they wanted to watch. It was an unfortunate time. We didn’t have 24–7 cartoons on the Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel.

We did have a Nintendo that we loved (and I actually think video games can do a great job of teaching kids problem-solving skills) but my Dad hogged it. A lot.

My parents also both worked full time and we lived on a large property that needed a lot of attention — mowing, weeding, painting, etc. So, my sister and I were left to entertain ourselves when we weren’t helping out. We didn’t have our parents orchestrating our playtime or keeping us entertained.

And we made the most of it.

We created elaborate puppet shows that we put on for our parents with full scripts and music. We concocted radio shows. We built our own haunted house, complete with scary sound and lighting effects. We didn’t just play store. We spent half a day setting up clothes displays and pricing and setting up a register area in the closet before inviting our friends to “shop.” We read and wrote books. We created art and made homemade gifts for our parents. We filled the carpeted stairway up with balloons and hung streamers in a curtain and called it a car wash as we slid down in our sleeping bags.

I don’t know. Would we have had these same creative experiences if my parents or technology had kept us busy and occupied every waking minute? I don’t think so.

Show ’Em

The most effective way to teach kids anything is to model the behavior yourself, and my parents were brilliant at modeling creative thinking and a love for learning.

My parents didn’t hide their problems from us. They worked through them together. Right in front of us. How are we going to get this tractor into the bed of the truck? How are we going to work out everyone’s schedules when mom has to pick up extra shifts at work? How are we going to set up this overly complicated tent when some of the stakes are missing? They showed us how to tackle a problem by thinking it through.

My dad would watch the Discovery Channel or History Channel, and teach us everything he learned. He’d drive us by the sewage and water department and explain how it all works. He’d take us to watch the airplanes take off and land at the airport. We’d talk about how things were made, how they were invented, and how they worked. He showed us how much fun it was to learn new things, and always be curious about the world around us.

To this day, my mom is my most trusted advisor. The funny thing is that she never gives advice. She works through problems with us, helping us consider every option from every angle. Never judging, only facilitating the decision-making process. She showed us how to take a big problem or decision and break it down and examine it critically. Now, this is how I try to tackle all of my problems — no matter if it’s a personal decision or an issue with a work project.

Do You Need to Do All of These Things?

Of course not! But, the next time your child has a question, try not to answer right away. Ask them what they think, or where they think they might find the answer. Enjoy watching them figure it out for themselves when they need to improvise because they don’t have the Popsicle sticks they need for an art project, but they’ve found some cardboard they can cut up to create their own. And don’t be upset when they toss aside their new dollhouse for the large box it came in. That box is full of endless possibilities and is helping your little one become a creative thinker.

I don’t know if my parents set out to raise two kids who can think creatively and solve their own problems, but they did just that, and I’m extremely grateful.

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