If I could snap my fingers and have a talent, it would be something artistic. I wish I could draw, paint, or sculpt. To put the images in one’s head into a tangible, beautifully rendered representation of the imagination must feel a little like having a super-power. From an early age I felt I lacked artistic talent – a strong first memory is of my frustration over drawing a person’s face and it not looking a thing like how I had imagined it. Making art has continued to frustrate me my whole life. I have always loved looking at art, but I gave up on making it years ago. So, I have never considered myself a ‘creative’ person. And yet, it makes sense to me that creative expression is a vital human need. Humans invent things. We strive to go beyond limitations in thought and procedure. We are invigorated by new ideas. Each one of us is endowed with imagination; an extraordinary gift that seems to me like our birth right. Having that belief has always given me a nagging feeling like I’m supposed to be creating. But how? What could I make that would be any good?
We all recognize the power and value of a child’s imagination. There is solid research in child development that tells us children learn about their world – building important cognitive and social skills – from imaginative play. This information has influenced my parenting in real ways. It helps me determine what types of toys to buy, how much ‘free-play’ time my kids need, and what art supplies to have in the house at any given age/stage. As a parent, I want to encourage their creativity in any way I can. What I didn’t realize, was how much they would influence mine!
Let me explain. Since I have cultivated a home environment where arts and crafts can be done basically any day of the week, my kids can often be heard asking me, “Mommy, can we make something?” That “something” can literally be anything. One day, not too long ago, we were having a discussion about flying. Something along the lines of “I wish I had wings”. This conversation spiraled into considering all types of flying objects. Before I knew it, my kids had put on their fairy wings and turned a cardboard box into an airplane. Something was missing from this game though. They wanted to fly faster! Lighter! They wanted jet-packs! The question soon came, “Mommy, can we make jet-packs?”
When my kids ask to make something, I hate saying no. Mostly, I hate to tell them, “I don’t know how” (I never tell them that the thing we end up making will probably turn out crummy-looking, though I’m often thinking that). I know that my response to challenges will eventually become their response (kids are great imitators, after all). I don’t say those things because I don’t want kids who give up when things are difficult. In the case of the jet-packs, we did a quick inventory of what supplies in the house could plausibly be used. I got an inspired idea to use a cereal box because it was the right size and shape for a child’s back. We covered it in tin foil (silver is the color of the future, right?), glued toilet-paper rolls to the bottom, and glued on a control panel made from construction paper. Finally, we used string to make straps and they were ready to fly. As I watched my kids run around the house with their new jet-packs, smiles plastered on their faces, I felt darn good about myself. I felt like I had solved a really difficult problem by being inventive. I felt truly creative for the first time in my life.
Here’s the thing to remember: It’s not about Pinterest. I don’t even look at that site anymore. I’m in awe of what some people can think up and execute. I appreciate that others put their art and ideas into the world in this format. I want it to be there; it’s existence is important. But I’m not aspiring to that level of creativity and skill. What I am aspiring to is a simple lesson for myself and my children: You have a message inside you that can be shared with the world. That message is yours and you can express it in any way you see fit. Too much in our culture, messages about how to feel, how to act, how to think, are packaged and delivered by mass media. We do not create or control the message. We are not a society of creators, but of consumers. To put it simply, I prefer the question, “Mommy can we make this?” over “Mommy, can we buy this?” And when the ideas for what to make come straight from my child’s imagination, and we collaborate and co-create together – well, that’s a really beautiful thing.
I hope they come to value the process over the finished product as I have. I still get frustrated that what I see in my mind is not exactly what comes out, but now I understand it’s worth doing anyway. After all, my most important creation is the relationship I form with my child. Children need to exercise their imagination and creativity, and so do grown-ups.
I’ll end with some words by two insanely creative individuals:
“Imagination is not a talent of some people, but it is the health of every person.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Put Something In by Shel Silverstein
Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.
Here’s a picture of Eleanor wearing her jet-pack.