You don’t have to be an artist or inventor to help your children develop creativity. It turns out all you really have to do is remove less creative ways for them to spend their time. That’s a lesson Emma Sartini didn’t even know she was learning as a child. But she’s glad she did.
Emma was the oldest of three children of a stay-at-home dad and a mom who worked as a retail executive. As Emma explains, one of the rules they established early on for all three of their children was this:
Rule #1: No toys allowed with batteries or that need electricity.
Many kids would consider that cruel and unusual punishment. But to Emma, that’s just the way things were. She recalls the only exception to the rule was for toys like Lite Brite or K’Nex where they were actually building a creation of their own design. And those were the only exceptions because of rule number two, which was:
Rule #2: No toys allowed that you have to be told what it is and how to play with it.
Rule #2 can be explained by the difference between how Lego building blocks were used when I was a kid growing up, versus how they’re used today. When I was a kid, all Legos were simple rectangular blocks that you used to make anything you want. Your only constraint was your imagination.
Today, Legos come in kits with specialty parts and capable of building only one thing, like this Death Star my son built. These Legos come with an instruction manual as complicated as the one that came with my car. They definitely require attention to detail. But no creativity needed. And once built, they stay built and never get used again. This one has been in my son’s room for over five years now. Legos in my day got used countless times until they got lost or you went off to college.
So how did Emma and her siblings entertain themselves? She explains, “We had to be more creative. I played with Lincoln Logs and paper dolls I made. We would go for walks and collect rocks. Then we painted the rocks into different animals and created whole scenes with them. I even remember my brother making wallets out of duct tape.”
Spending an entire childhood that way led to some powerful character traits for Emma and her siblings. Today, Emma is always trying to make something from nothing. She says, “I don’t mind buying something that isn’t perfect. And it doesn’t have to be a designer name brand either. I can get something from a thrift shop and fix it up. Or if I see a painting I like, I buy a blank canvas and make it myself. If I cut the sleeves off of a shirt, I keep the scraps and make something out of them—maybe turn it into a bracelet or headband.”
And if you think you see something other than creativity being developed here, you’re right. Her parent’s rule helped her develop a sense of frugality and resourcefulness. “I still don’t like things with batteries,” she says. “I think it’s wasteful. I even wash and reuse plastic Baggies.”
But the rules may have had an even longer-term impact. All three children grew up to pursue a career in some kind of creative design. Emma studied industrial design and grew up to be a product designer, using her creativity on a daily basis. Her brother went to school for digital design. And her sister, who learned how to knit and crochet in elementary school, ended up making her own purses and hats in junior high, then went on to college to study fashion design.
Emma’s parents raised a whole family of highly creative people. And it all started with a couple of simple rules.
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- What do you think about the “no batteries” rule at Emma’s house? What about rule #2?
- If your parents had the same rules, what kinds of things would you have to give up?
- What would you start spending your time doing?
- What’s something that uses electricity that does allow you to be highly creative?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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