One of my favorite moments for not-exactly-guilty pleasures is any time I spend in a waiting room browsing magazines. Those few minutes before a dentist or hair stylist appointment give me the chance to explore publications I don’t have time to read during the rest of my hectic life. Recently while browsing Better Homes and Gardens, I discovered The Good Kid Project, a year-long series by psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo. It explores twelve qualities Lombard believes are key to a happy well-adjusted child.
As I read, one of the things that struck me is that several of the characteristics suggested as being essential for a “good kid” are important for a creative kid as well. For example, one of the characteristics encouraged by the Good Kid project is perseverance, described as a “setbacks won’t stop me” attitude. Another is self-reliance and problem solving. Even the section on compassion focused on seeing the world from another perspective—an essential element of creative thinking. It made me wonder, if we focus on helping young people be “good kids,” will they be creative as well?
And yet, just after I read the article, I had a reminder that life with creative young people is full of surprises—and not always in the ways adults intend. Driving home, I listened to NPR’s Fresh Air’s interview with writer Terence Winter, creator of Boardwalk Empire and writer for The Sopranos. He described the considerable creativity he used in getting his first scripts read. He created a fake agent, complete with fake stationery, and pretended to be that agent’s delivery service bringing the scripts. He used equal ingenuity in being admitted to college despite having attended a technical high school that left him woefully unprepared. Younger students could exercise their creativity in producing innovative school projects—or in devising ways to complete them with minimal effort. If there is one thing that can be certain about working with children with original ideas, it is that we never know quite where those ideas will take them—or us.
So, are the strategies for raising or teaching “good kids” and creative kids the same? Sort of. Sometimes. I hope we all want to encourage students to be persevering, self-reliant, compassionate, and confident. So, from that perspective, some strategies are important for all children. Learning to be kind and compassionate can help young people focus their creativity in productive ways.
But life with young people exercising their creativity will always be unpredictable. Sometimes confidence can morph to arrogance or students’ persistence can clash with school or family schedules. Creativity can be used to solve problems, or in ways that are unkind or deceptive—and yet still creative. Being creative doesn’t always mesh with being compliant. It reminds me of a wise mother-of-teens who wailed (in only semi-joking despair), “I worked so hard to teach my children to be independent–and now they are!”
For me there are at least two lessons here. First, we must nurture both creativity and the kinds of character traits that will propel young people to use their creativity in kind and productive ways. But second, on the way, we must recognize creative student as works-in-progress and acknowledge (to ourselves and often to them) that behaviors can be creative even when they are annoying, messy, or undesireble in other ways. An inventive homework excuse should not get a wayward student out of homework, but it should cause a wise teacher to wonder how else that creativity could be applied.