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Home » Notes to Parents »

Getting Creative Ideas

As a parent you organize a great deal of your child's time. You also help her think through problems and share with her strategies that have worked for you when you face challenges. For both these reasons, this article will look first at when and how adults get creative ideas and then look at implications for parenting.

One of the most important things about time and creativity is that you need some "down" time. When you give your conscious mind a rest, you have a chance to hear from your powerful and ever-active subconscious mind. To illustrate, many adults have had the experience of something being on the "tip of their tongue." For example, at lunch you might hear someone talking about a book you also read and you want to help her remember the author's name, but neither of you can come up with it. You might even pose the question out loud, "What is his name? Why can't I think of it?" The whole day could go by without remembering it, only to have it pop into your head when you least expect and when you cannot tell your friend (maybe at 3:00 a.m.). Your subconscious remembered the question your conscious mind posed and found the answer, but then had to wait for a time when your conscious mind was not "busy" to communicate the information.

What this has to do with getting creative ideas is that many people have found that their most creative ideas occur to them when they are not striving to think. For example, many people report having creative insights in the shower, even as far back as Archimedes. He had been puzzling about volume for a while, just the way you might have wondered about an author's name. If he'd been focused on just getting into the tub rather than noticing how the water level rose, far fewer people would know the word "Eureka!" Other people have their insights upon waking in the morning, while out running, or while driving (probably not urban commuters), or doing other routine activities they can perform fairly automatically.

You can be even more active in seeking ideas from your subconscious. Inventor Ray Kurzweil asks himself questions before he goes to sleep. He says he often dreams the answers. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali had ways of jolting themselves awake just as they were about to fall asleep so they could capture the ideas that had formed. Their routine work and thinking had prepared their minds with ideas, thoughts, and questions which "incubated" and combined when they were extremely relaxed, indeed at the border between consciousness and subconciousness. Carrying out the ideas and evaluating whether they worked--in other words, building the invention or making the painting--of course required focused thinking.

Another way to promote openness to new experience involves doing a routine activity in a slightly different way. Try a new route to a frequent destination so that you will notice new things. Ask yourself new questions about routine chores. Perhaps someone who asks himself every day, "What can I make for dinner?" might achieve greater culinary creativity by switching to "What would be fun for us to eat when we're all back together this evening?"

Another source of creativity involves expressing your feelings in productive ways. Frederic Chopin wrote many moving piano pieces in the year after his favorite sister died. It seems to have a been a useful way to express his grief. Even if we are not artists or musicians, being an audience for music, movies, or plays that express feelings we find in ourselves can be very comforting.

Psychologist Mihaly Czickszentmihalyi calls engagement in self-chosen activities that are challenging enough but not too difficult, "flow," and equates it with happiness. All these seemingly adult experiences have some implications for parenting:

  • Children's creativity will likely thrive when parents offer some routine balanced with negotiable, adjustable control and a relaxed enough atmosphere.
  • Children need time to relax, to think their own thoughts, to daydream or to dream, and to find out what sense their subconscious is making of all their conscious activities and thoughts.
  • If your child is stressed or going through a difficult experience, it may help to give him or her creative responsibilities or outlets.

Sources and Further Reading:

Adams, J. (1987). The Care and Feeding of Ideas: A Guide to Encouraging Creativity. New York: Perseus.

Czickszentmihalyi, M. (1993). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life New York: Perseus.

Howard, P. J. (2000). The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research. Austin: Bard Press.

Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Papworth, M. & James, I. A. (2003). Creativity and Mood: Towards a Model of Cognitive Mediation. Journal of Creative Behavior (37) 1, 1-16

Richards, R. (1993). Everyday Creativity, Eminent Creativity and Psychopathology. Psychological Inquiry (4) 3, 212-217.

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