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You’d be hard pressed to find the parent who says, “I want to squash my kids’ dreams every way I can!”
Every dad and mom worth his or her salt wants their children to grow up creative, stimulated, and dreaming big, and they make every effort to encourage these traits. But at Idealist, we’re all about good things getting even better, so we asked child and family psychologist Aparna Sampat for her tips on encouraging kids to imagine without borders.
Here are three zingers we pulled from our interview, straight from the doc herself:
1) Ask, don’t tell.
When young kids are drawing or coloring, they usually start out with everyday sights: say a tree or a house. But if the tree is round or the house doesn’t have windows or doors, a common reaction from parents is, ‘Oh honey, that’s not how you draw a house/tree. Let me show you,’ and they proceed to draw it the ‘correct’ way. This can really stifle creativity; it makes kids think things have to look a certain way to be ‘right.’
So instead of correcting them, try asking questions. ‘Oh, you drew a tree? Tell me about it. Does it have leaves? No? Okay, cool, a tree without leaves. Would a bird like this tree?’
Provocation will make them imagine more, and having to explain their design will get them to think more about its form and function.
2) Couches are for sitting?
I was in a family’s living room once and their two young boys were wreaking havoc on the couch—pretending it was a pirate ship and jumping on and off. The mom became irritated and concerned that they’d damage the furniture or the floor, so she admonished them: ‘Couches are not for jumping; couches are for sitting.’
While I sympathized with the mother’s concerns, I had to think: are these kid ever going to be able to see things outside the box? Where will they be able to exercise their imaginations? They’re at the age when we develop a sense that multiple perspectives exist and not everyone is thinking what we’re thinking—when a banana can become a phone, etc.
The problem for the mom in this case was not that her boys were being imaginative, but that they might be destructive—yet that wasn’t the problem she addressed when she disciplined them. She could have explained the actual issue and given them a choice between playing more gently on the couch or picking another place to play—without so narrowly defining what household objects are ‘for.’
3) Use your words.
On the street once, I saw a boy who clearly wanted to get a hold of his dad’s cell phone. The dad took a moment to retrieve it from his pocket, and the boy swatted his hand with impatience. In response, the dad swatted the kid’s hand back! The message he sent there was: when you’re frustrated, it’s okay to lash out instead of crafting a productive reply.
To encourage his son to build his powers of creative communication, the dad could have said, ‘Whoa! Are you frustrated? Did you want this phone sooner than I could give it to you? Tell me how you’re feeling.’ Even if the child just nods in reply, that exchange is a good way to demonstrate how clear, calm communication can help solve problems, but that it does take practice.
When we act out physically instead of taking the time to think about and articulate our problems, we blunt our creativity and put up a wall between ourselves and others. The self-expression that kids—and all of us—can cultivate through our words is usually a more useful tool than an open palm.
Sampat sums it all up by saying, “Kids’ minds start out boundless. They don’t impose limits, even unintentionally. So all we have to do is not shut them down.”
“Just think: what would my kids be creating right now if they didn’t think they could do wrong?”
How do you encourage the kids in your life to be practical dreamers? Tell us in the comments.
Dr. Aparna Sampat is a licensed psychologist who works with children, adolescents, young adults, and families in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.