Brené Brown, bestselling author, researcher, and University of Houston professor, was surrounded by creativity as a child. “I grew up in a pink stucco house in New Orleans where my mom was always a maker. All the curtains in our house were homemade, all the art in our house was from us kids. I had dresses that matched my mom’s that matched my dolls’.”
“I never thought about creativity as an act separate from self,” says Brown, who has spent the last two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. “To be human is to be creative.”
Brown’s environment changed abruptly, however, when her family moved to the suburbs of Houston. “No one there wore homemade clothes. Everything was from the mall. Everyone was cookie-cutter and comparative,” she says.
“The person who could draw a horse that looked most like a real horse was the only person who was considered ‘right,’ while the one who made the interesting three-headed horse with the blue polka dots wasn’t cool.”
Conformity—the drive to appear like everyone else—is one of the killers of creativity, Brown has found. Another one is the “art scar,” otherwise known as creative mortification: a negative reaction to your creative efforts, often in childhood, that is so wounding you give up on that pursuit.
In Brown’s studies of shame, 85% of participants could remember something so painful and shaming it changed how they thought of themselves as learners—about half of the time related to creativity.
“I can’t tell you how many people have stories of being in a classroom or with a parent who said, ‘This doesn’t look like anything’ and literally having their art ripped up,” she says.
But that isn’t the whole story. Even more of Brown’s interviewees, about 90%, recalled adults who helped them see their value. “I can’t tell you the number of teachers and parents who’ve taped those pieces back together and said, ‘This is art. You have a unique lens. It belongs to no one else,’” Brown says.
So what can parents and teachers do to support positive creative growth in children and students? Here are six simple guidelines.
1. Recognize your biases
“The first thing to do is heal our own,” says Brown. “We need to recognize our own wounds around creativity in order not to pass them down. . . . You need to model what you want to see.”
Professor Ron Beghetto, an internationally recognized expert on creativity in educational settings, experienced creative mortification around his poetry as a student. “If the poetry teacher had said, ‘Hey, you’re no John Keats, but let me show you how to improve it…here are a couple of lines that show promise,’ that would have made all the difference,” he says. Recognizing the cause of his art scars helped him be sensitive to young people’s creativity when he became a teacher himself.
Professor James C. Kaufman, author of Creativity 101 and the forthcoming Creativity Advantage, explains that by associating creativity with geniuses, we fail to recognize everyday creativity in ourselves and others. “We have certain fixed ideas about creativity. A lot of people . . . assume, well, Shakespeare’s creative, Einstein’s creative,” he says. “But there are all these gradations and levels of creativity. Creativity is not just about the arts; it applies to everything that involves the process of problem solving.”
Wendy Firestone, a school psychologist with more than 35 years’ experience working with K–12 students, agrees. “There are so many types of creativity. It could be the way your child lines up their stuffed animals in the bed to create comfort, or how they match their clothing.” In this way, it’s important to view all children as creative, even if they don’t gravitate toward the arts.
2. Support a growth mindset
With a “growth mindset,” children believe they can improve their creative abilities through effort, whereas with a “fixed mindset,” they believe their traits are unchangeable.
To help kids cultivate that growth mindset, “we need to acknowledge effort rather than outcome,” says Brown.
Rather than tell a child their drawing is beautiful, for example, note their attention to the details around the eyes or the shading of a tree, acknowledging their focus and hard work. If they wrote a story, mention some resonant details about the character, the setting, or thoughtful choice of words that reflect their observational skills or vivid imagination—rather than simply saying, “That’s great!,” which focuses more on the product than the process.
Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Extended Mind and The Science of Creativity newsletter, suggests that we should avoid labeling our kids as creative or not. “As a child, you take your cues from the big people in your life, and you assume that however they label you is correct. You might not even explore and find out for yourself whether you’re creative or not. But I think it can also be a detriment to be labeled as creative, too, feeling pressure to live up to this idea, a fixed idea of who you are.”
Firestone believes that a growth mindset and creativity go hand in hand. “Having a growth mindset means maintaining flexibility in your thinking process. So if things don’t go your way or you want to try something new, you feel the freedom to take that path. A part of creativity is recognizing that there are alternatives to situations, and the outcome doesn’t need to be the same every time.”
3. Reframe setbacks and failures
“You’re going to hit setbacks,” says Beghetto. He suggests the motto, “This might not work, but we’re gonna learn from it”—“because if you learn from it, then it’s already a win, even if it’s a failure.”
Experiencing failure and stumbling blocks is painful at any age, but for kids it can be devastating. Parents and teachers can make a pivotal difference in helping kids not only bounce back from these experiences, but also grow from them.
“Creativity is so linked to our ability to recover, to heal, to grow after bad things happen. If a game doesn’t go as hoped, a leader or coach can help them reframe—to think of the experience differently—and learn from it to help them going forward,” says Kaufman.
If a dancer messes up the routine during a recital, for example, a creative reframing might include discussing how to break the movements down into smaller, more memorable sequences the next time, and also practicing the routine to regain confidence.
4. Be mindful of rewards
While it’s logical to assume that rewards are motivating, they can be counterproductive with regard to creativity. Kaufman explains that praise can actually dissuade your child’s intrinsic interest, because the activity then becomes associated with the reward.
“The most famous example is when Pizza Hut had a promotion of offering a free personal pan pizza for reading a certain number of books,” explains Kaufman. “What ended up happening was that the kids who didn’t like reading read for pizza, and the kids who did got trained that, well, the reason why you read is to get this pizza. Once the promotion stopped, the kids [who initially read for pleasure] were less likely to read.”
So that means that certain kinds of rewards—like getting candy for practicing the piano or a new pair of earrings for baking a sibling’s birthday cake—could actually demotivate kids from being creative.
“To be human is to be creative”
“If a reward is related to competence in that area, that’s different,” says Kaufman. “If you have a child who loves to draw and you get them a really nice set of colored pencils, you’re rewarding their interest and efforts.”
5. Listen for creative micro-moments
In his book Killing Ideas Softly?, Beghetto discusses the impact of creative micro-moments, which he defines as “brief, surprising moments of creative potential that emerge in everyday routines, habits, and planned experiences.” They might take the form of a student solving a problem differently, interrupting to say something off-topic, or interpreting a theory, passage, or problem in a way that’s divergent from what the curriculum prescribes. What’s important is to not simply dismiss students, but rather take a beat and listen.
“Micro-moments happen particularly in academic settings when there is a correct answer, perspective, or behavior we’re looking for,” says Beghetto. When a student comes up with something unexpected, you might be tempted to correct it immediately, worrying that it will take too much time to explore or that the student is willfully disrupting class. But “if you take a minute, then you might discover an idea that contributes to others’ understanding, including your own,” he says.
6. Encourage curiosity and new experiences
Researchers at the University of Bath in the U.K. discovered that people who are open to new experiences and ideas are more creative than those who are not. Parents and teachers can inspire curiosity and new experiences in endless ways, from excursions to museums, cultural centers, and parks; to trying unfamiliar foods, new sports, or instruments. “Even very simple variations on an evening routine, whether playing a new board game or helping cook dinner, can help normalize novelty,” says Kaufman.
“What we need to do is look at what motivates children, teach the love of learning, and inspire children to look further,” says Firestone. “If we help them try on different hats, see what fits, and provide opportunities to help them, they’ll run with it. The parent’s job then becomes facilitating and guiding.”
Brown has continued her family’s traditions as makers. “We celebrate creativity here and are very intentional about it. My kids’ art is framed all over the house. My son plays the guitar, and we take him to go see live music when we can. My daughter is…well, you name a craft and she does it. We started a mother-daughter book club when Ellen was in second grade. And for every book we read when we met, we made a craft project to represent that book.”
As someone who often faces public scrutiny, Brown recognizes that “there’s nothing more vulnerable and brave than to put your work out into the world. The hard thing is that you have to be open enough to create, and thoughtful enough to only let in the opinions that really matter.”
Understanding what inhibits creativity is just as important as knowing what helps it thrive. Allowing children to explore, try (and try again) without fear of failure, pursue new experiences, and tap into their own intrinsic motivation helps inspire them to not only become creative thinkers but also more resilient, resourceful individuals.