PARENTING MATTERS: Launching Creative Kids

Shawn M. McGivern, LMHC


“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at, last, you create what you will” -George Bernard Shaw

With more than 100 theories of creativity in disciplines ranging from neuroscience to psychology, economics, and philosophy, it can be dizzying to land on the best way to invoke, evoke and sustain our children’s innate creative drive.

What is creativity?

Perhaps the late Steve Jobs put it best: “Creativity is the ability to make connections”.

Therefore, whether it’s inventing a new product, playing an instrument, or planting crops to ameliorate world hunger, children’s future ability to offer their creative gifts to the world may, in part, depend on mastering certain developmental tasks their first 18 years.

Polish psychologist Dabrowski’s 1960s research on the characteristics of highly creative students turned up some savory food for thought. Specifically, while we sometimes assume the child prodigy is destined for great things, Dabrowski’s findings suggest that inherited talent, temperament and IQ do not necessarily guarantee success.

Given a problem to solve, creative students will arrange and re-arrange their thinking so as to offer multiple solutions. They daydream; they fantasize. To the delight of some and the chagrin of others, they see the humor where others do not. They don’t like non-acceptance, but aren’t especially bothered by being “different” either.

With a passion that can border on pesky, these are the kids who ask questions until they get a thorough answer. As Dabrowski points out, they can surprise us with their original, silly, or even bizarre representations of what originated in the imaginal realm.

What sets these students apart from others? They possess a rare ability to concentrate and across the board work hard to achieve their personal goals.

“Creativity is contagious, pass it on” -Albert Einstein.

Having counseled scores of creative adolescents and adults over the past 20 years, I’m often asked, “How can I nurture my child’s creativity?”

The fact is, some adults who have survived trauma will continue to create as if their next and last breath depends on it. Optimally, however, kids will benefit from parents who find value in the words of a seasoned reading specialist.

“Give me a child whose been read to her whole life infancy and I’ll show you a kid who can imagine her own possibilities. Give me a curious, connected parent and I’ll show you a child who has a thirst for knowledge. Give me a parent who, when their kid shows hem a drawing, focuses more on the thoughts and feelings that inspired it, and I’ll show you the kid who is most likely to draw as an adult.”

When it comes to encouraging our children’s creativity, Swiss Psychologist Erik Erikson’s sequential 8-stage Theory of Psychosocial Development may be worth consideration.

In general, creativity arises when we are invited to trust. According to Psychosocial Theory, if children are consistently fed during their first year, they will develop trust and, by extension, the virtue of hope.

If at age 2, they are allowed to exercise control over their personal skills (especially toilet training) they will emerge from this stage having achieved Autonomy. (Note: when children say NO to us, they are often saying “Yes to ME”)

Age 3-5 constitutes the Play Stage. Kids live in the body. Their explorations  will invariably result in messy experiments involving taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. If, however, we can hold off on teaching that Neatness Counts, they will emerge from this stage possessing Initiative and will.

From age 6-8, children are becoming industrious. In order to become competent, the task is to obtain the knowledge and skills required to move half-baked ideas to fruition. Doing things together helps them become relational. In addition, these are times when, if we actively listen, they will let us in on how they think, feel, and perceive their world.

Ideally, adolescents move from being able to form lasting friendships to having the capacity for intimacy and love as they enter young adulthood at 18. As an example of a young man who evidences a sense of individuality and belonging in the larger world, here follows an excerpt from “T’s” college admissions essay.

“My parents gave me every possible advantage in terms of honing my skills as a sculpture. I grew up with teachers and adults who valued self expression and gave me the tools I need to be my own person.

Looking back, what I value the most are the talks my dad and I have had while making things in his woodshop. We’ve talked about his life, my life, what makes life good vs. disappointing. My mom and I have always gone hiking together. When I was a kid she’d take a picture of something and then have me take a picture of the same thing just so we could talk about how we saw things in the same way and how we saw them differently. My sculptures show how people relate to themselves, to each other, and to nature. I have a lot to learn but I have a lot to contribute too.”

Leading By Example

Theories on creativity abound but as a means by which to model what works with creative kids, this tale of a mom whose 7-year old son hopes to one day be a marine biologist is worth passing on.

Most Saturday mornings, Collette looks forward to seeing what Matthew has created in an area of the family room he calls “MY INNOVENTIONS”.

This particular Saturday, however, she registers horror when she enters the den. With clear intent, Matt has cut into pieces not only a large, very expensive stuffed pig (with piglets attached to her belly) but also a hefty stuffed elephant.

OMG! I’ve given birth to Young Frankenstein, shouts a voice inside her head.

“Hey Mom!” Matt smiles.

Colette grew up with parents who adhered to the Victorian saw, children are meant to be seen and not heard.

“Hey Matt. What’s up?”

With the focus of a heart surgeon, Matt keeps cutting.

“Sea Monster, His name is Borgo.”

Collette is not only an animal rights activities; she’s on an ethics committee that’s protesting the use of animals for scientific experiments. Matt is oblivious. He is now waving her onto the floor next to him, holding out the lacquer-sewing box.

“Mom, I need you to sew the pig’s head to this side of the octopus’s head and the elephant’s head to the other side.”

Collette sits down, says gently, “You know, honey, I just don’t feel up to doing this right now.”

“Don’t worry, Mom, he says, ” If you put your mind to it, you can do ANYTHING!!!! “

“But what I’m telling you, Matt, is I just don’t feel like doing this right now”.

The mix of Matthews’s faith in her and the disappointment in his eyes is poignant.

Colette meditates. Breathe in Love; Breathe out Fear.

“Tell you what, Matt, how about instead of me doing it, I teach you how to sew?”

“Can’t you do it?”

“Hey, everybody knows you can do ANYTHING too, remember?”

One hour later, Borgo, in all his tentacled, Platapyzmic splendor is presented to Collette next to the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter.

Cool, huh? Matt is beaming with pride.

“Wow! Matt! You did it!”

“You think it’s good?

Sticky Wicket. Collette knows that if she has the power to say Matt’s piece is good, she also has the power to say it’s bad.

Alternative: “ What I love, Matt is that you saw something in your mind’s eye and then you spent time making something new – something that has never until now existed in the history of history!”

“I’m bringing him to school Monday” says Matt, “ I’m going to tell everyone the story of Borgo.”

“Cool! So how about I take notes while you tell me the story of Borgo?”

The Story of Borgo by Matt

The Octopus is a busy guy. He gets really hungry looking for food. He’s having a hard time finding lunch, though, because the fish are getting trapped in all the plastic people are dumping into the ocean. Pigs are really smart.

Did you know they can find food even when it’s buried in the earth?

So the pig will help the octopus find food. Also, the elephant can use his trunk like a vacuum cleaner to suck fish who aren’t getting chocked by plastic out of the coral reefs.”

“Now that’s what I call an Innovation!” Colette claps.

“But Matt, can I ask you one question?


“How come you sewed the piglets to the elephant’s trunk?

Matt grabs an apple out of the fruit bowl. Takes a big bite.

“I don’t know, Mom. That’s for the future to figure out.”


Shawn M. McGivern, LMHC

Shawn M. McGivern, LMHC

Shawn M. McGivern, LMHC, is a psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in the integration of creativity and mental health. She is an Adjunct Psychology Professor at Lesley University and a former freelance art critic for The Boston Globe. In addition, she is the inventor of a creative writing/storytelling process called My Legacy in Words and Images Email he at:

Share this: