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Turn Off the TV and Leave them Alone

January 30, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

Two simple, cost-free suggestions to nurture your kids' creativity.

The debate over the best way to foster creativity in children continues in the Wall Street Journal Work and Family Mailbox (01/26/2011) and probably in homes throughout the country. Parents are desperately seeking resources that will help nurture their kids’ creativity and spending a fortune in the pursuit. I have two simple, cost-free suggestions to help resolve this dilemma.

One is to just leave them alone.

What? Not hover? Not organize? Not schlep to lessons? Their creative side is much more likely to flourish when we are not trying so hard to develop it. Yes, once they have chosen an area of focus, we need to provide the structure. (See my blog from last week.) But let them choose. See if they gravitate towards those toy instruments (any one in particular!) – or that upright piano in the living room. I decided not to fight with my children about practicing an instrument. If they don't practice, the lessons will stop – they have to want it enough that they would work for it, not me (take that Amy Chua!).

Do they pick up the paints and markers and want to make art projects all afternoon? Maybe a budding Monet? More likely, it’s just fun for now. But that’s okay too. Their creative side is still developing, even without the professional instructor.

I found that the purchase of a “Lesson Plan” book gave my daughters endless hour of pleasure as they played school – the form where they were the teachers and had all the power. I hope they were being creative and that their teachers didn’t actually scream at them the way they yelled at their imaginary students.

There are, of course, the famous boxes that the toys came in to be left lying around. And there is the outdoors – a backyard where they can roam with parental supervision but limited interference can lead to hours of creative fun. I remember the neighborhood kids joining in for some backyard “theater” that was more entertaining that some of the Broadway plays I’ve seen recently. A friend of mine who is an experienced family therapist has a theory of parenting that seems to apply here. She advocates “benign neglect”. Their creativity will grow when they are uninhibited by our constant instruction and presence, if we just leave them be and do not impose too many “creativity-nourishing” programs on them.

My other suggestion – perhaps even more radical – is to turn off the television. It seems paradoxical to be anxious about our children’s creative side and then plunk them down for hours in front of the TV. There is probably nothing that dulls their creative impulses more than sitting and passively watching television. It encourages an expectation of being entertained with no effort or participation required. I don’t have a television in my home for many reasons including the content (it’s virtually impossible to constantly monitor it – your family really only watches The History Channel?), the anticipated fights (kids have enough to struggle over without adding whose turn it is to watch which program to the mix) and the passivity. All learning (not just the creative kind) is stifled by that brain-numbing (literally – they’ve studied the patterns) activity.

So if we really want our children to be creative, to have a spontaneous side, to think up their own activities, I recommend limiting their hours in front of the television (I’m trying to be realistic by not telling you to get rid of it altogether!). And step out of the picture.

I’ve found that whenever there was an expectation that my husband and I will be providing the entertainment – on a Sunday afternoon for example – there would be no end to the pestering “When are we leaving?” “Where are we going?” But if we would say “You’re on your own today,” they’d soon be playing together (mostly) happily.

I’ve never tried any of those special programs for children. They may, in fact, be wonderful. But children are naturally creative. We don’t need to foster it as much as remove any obstacles we’ve placed in its way.

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