Sucking the Soul and Creativity Out of Children

3 year-old Tony was encouraged by his grandfather to take things apart; old clocks, motors. By age 5 he was using tools like soldering irons to build stuff, arriving at school many days with burn marks on his hands and arms. He loved to take things apart so that he could see how they looked and worked from the inside out. By the time Tony was 14, he was creating and selling computer programs, heralding his adult inventions that have revolutionized the electronics industry and the world. I worry that todays budding inventors won’t have the opportunities and freedom to explore and invent like Tony did.

One impediment is the lack of down time. Kids need time to pour themselves into the creative process, to experience those flow moments when they are so engaged that they lose time. Busy schedules packed with activities don’t allow for this. Creative, original thought often springs forth from times of daydreaming, when we aren’t busy and distracted.

Author Ken Robinson has a great quote about this topic: “If you are not prepared to be wrong and make mistakes, you will never create anything original.” That means you have to let kids make mistakes, get frustrated, maybe even fail as part of this inventive process.

Many adults who became inventors were judged as being different as kids, with many being teased or excluded. They really did see the world differently, and this tended to set them apart because their original and unique approach to things was not valued as kids. Some creative kids hide their talents for fear of being shunned and alone.

Ask a classroom full of 5 year-olds “who is an artist” and you will see a sea of hands wildly waving. By 5th grade you might see a third of students raise their hands, and by high school at best a few embarrassed ones. We really don’t value artists, musicians, and dancers nearly as much as we do the 3 R’s and sports teams. In a lean economy, it is the arts programs that get cut, never the football program. A high school senior interested in art colleges is usually smothered with lectures about starving artists and not being able to make a good living, blah, blah, blah.

The comedian Louis C.K. shared in a Rolling Stone interview last year that he learned to do his creative writing at a computer that had no internet access, because in his moments of writer’s block it was too easy to distract himself by looking at porn sites and buying things. He worries that kids today are not willing to go through the frustrating times that usually result in his greatest new ideas because it’s too easy to click onto the next more interesting thing. And many experts are worried that young people are not learning to dive deeply into subjects and conversations because of the conditioning of texting and social networking sites.

I have talked to many successful high school students who have had the love of learning sucked out of them by the boring process of the “game of school”. They have learned to give the teacher what she wants, to study only what’s going to be on the test, and to pad their resumes with activities even if they have no interest in them because that’s what top colleges are looking for. And that is sad.

Kids need down time to avidly pursue things that they are interested in. It’s only when they are fully engaged in their passions that they will be willing to put in the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell, in the book Outliers, found people had invested to become masters of their craft. I want kids to rediscover the love of learning that is inherent in the pursuit of knowledge, and to play games and sports for plays sake and for the fun involved vs. seeking national championship banners. Left to their own devices, kids are natural born learners, curious, ready for adventures, self-motivated, and bearers of vivid imaginations. Perhaps our job as parents is to get out of their way and allow them a more soulful childhood.


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