Creativity, Curiosity and the Tiger Mom
Cultivating curiosity in children seems like an exercise in futility, or perhaps redundancy. I mean, after all, don’t all children have a natural sense of wonder? Isn’t it an evolutionary trait to want to explore our environment? Isn’t curiosity what leads us to new discoveries?
Yes, that’s exactly what it does. But it doesn’t actually come naturally. Or rather, it does, but parents must try not to get in the way. According to Adam Grant, author of the new book “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” and professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, it is natural curiosity that leads us to be more creative, it is also what enables us to think of truly original ideas.
Are creativity and curiosity the necessary requirements or building blocks for success? Curiosity is what motivates people to practice a skill for thousands of hours (this refers to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to perfect a skill). You have to be curious enough to want to play the flute or speak Italian in the first place, but once you commit to and master a skill, then what? Are you smarter, more creative? Grant claims that research has shown that the more we practice, the more we become entrenched or “trapped in familiar ways of thinking”.
This makes total sense to me. On one hand, if I watch my daughter doing something over and over and over again, I can see her fall into a pattern of familiarity and wear down the deep grooves she’s carved for herself without even realizing it. I see how, for example, my 9 year old's practicing piano can become rote when striving for perfection of a piece. It’s rare to find something new in the repetition. On the other hand, this confuses me as a parent trying to help my children succeed. I think curiosity is natural and inborn but I also think laziness is, too. Especially in kids. They don’t really want to work hard unless they are forced to. My husband forces our daughters to stack wood. They hate it, but I also think they secretly love being put to work and know they are better for it. In his recent opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, "How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off," Grant invokes “Tiger Moms” and writes, "You can’t program a child to be creative”. I read Amy Chua’s 2011 sensational and controversial book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and as outrageous as some of her parenting seemed, I could relate to it because: 1. I was raised by a Tiger mom (though my mother grew up in India, not China) 2. Tiger moms get results - meaning, they raise successful, intelligent children. In my family, all four of us have graduate degrees or doctorates, two are professors, one is a Rhode Scholar, we all are bilingual, or trilingual, play the piano and were competitive swimmers. This didn’t come easily or without blood, sweat and tears (a lot of tears) like in Amy Chua’s book. However, as a mother of four children now myself, I balk at the idea of forcing my children to play the piano (like my mother did) or forcing them to compete in a sport they didn’t choose (like my mother did) or setting too many rules about what they're allowed to do and not to do (like my mother did). Grant cites research about how the parents of highly creative adults – these include famous musicians, artists, and scientists who achieve something new, who create, compose or discover something original- didn’t try to make these children into highly successful adults (the way Amy Chua and my mother did). Grant writes “try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot”.
This is harsh, but I understand his point of view. I get what he is saying. You can be forced to be the best student in the class and perform Mozart’s sonatas perfectly and be the captain of your swim team at Princeton but all of that, serves to draw parental and teacher approval. “Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.” Why does this matter? When it comes to raising children, children who could potentially bring original ideas into the world - we need to be thinking creatively. We desperately need our children to be big-time creative thinkers in order to solve the many crises happening on our planet and to our planet. We need new ideas to solve this new generation of problems. Creative children are driven by curiosity. As parents, this curiosity is something we must try to cultivate - by not actively cultivating it. It is about letting our children find what they love and supporting them when they find it. Dr. Peter Benson, one of the world’s leading experts on adolescence, gave a TED talk on making it a parent’s job to help each child find their “spark”.
A spark is something that gives a child incredible joy, motivation and direction and comes through the child’s own discovery. This kind of passion can lead to big scientific breakthroughs.
Grant writes that curiosity leads to “flashes of insight” such as Albert Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity. It occurred to him “through intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.” Being curious can help lead children to find what they are passionate about which in turn can lead them to their “joy in work”. This matters to me, at least, because on a micro level if success means “finding joy in our work” and my children being happy, then that is a definition of success to which I subscribe. On a macro level, it matters to me because creative children grow up to be adults who solve problems and create art and push boundaries and make the world a better place.
So how I can believe both Amy Chua and Adam Grant? Grant says that too many rules can limit a child’s curiosity and creativity, that it’s best to limit specific rules so children can think for themselves. Conversely, Chua has a long list of rules and things her children are not allowed to do, like choosing their own extracurricular activities or participating in a school play. Grant writes, “If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours.” And yet, Chua’s daughter performed at Carnegie Hall at age fourteen. I am a product of my own Tiger mom and all the time, effort and energy she put into forcing me to do things that I wouldn’t naturally have done (out of laziness probably) made me into the confident, intelligent, multi-skilled person that I am today.
I don’t think my mother was trying to program us to be creative or program us to be anything in particular. She was trying to instill a work-ethic, build our confidence and cultivate a sense of excellence in us. On a very basic level, she wanted to make sure her daughters opened every door of opportunity so we could be highly educated and financially independent. She knew this would lead to a good life for us. She was right.
Maybe the answer, for me at least, is to apply a bit of both ways of thinking, or parenting. Maybe I need to be part Tiger Mom, part spark-tender. Allow time and space to unleash their curiosity, let them find what they love to do and then, by George, crack the metaphorical whip.