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Make Room for your Children’s Creativity

November 29, 2009

Yesterday, at a teacher's training workshop, the instructor asked for a show of hands from those who felt they were creative. Only one-third responded, while others shied away with comments like, "I'm not artistic, can't draw, can't carry a tune." As if creativity only referred to the arts and to a mystical process known only to unique souls endowed with "talent" that they draw upon at midnight in their moonlit studios.

Webster's Thesaurus lists the following synonyms for creative: inventive, innovative, imaginative, ingenious, original, resourceful, clever, mystical. These are qualities needed in most every walk of life. They make the difference between automated response and truly human existence. They are qualities we want our children to feel comfortable and confident using to handle life's challenges. How can we develop, nurture, and support their creativity?

As an artist, mother, and teacher, I know how my life has been enriched by my ability to spend time tapping into the deep spring of creative ideas that resides in us all. I want my children and students to experience that process.

School is too often filled with rote learning and spitting back right answers. Television fosters passivity, shallow thinking, and the impression that life is full of easy answers that can fit into a 60-second sound bite. How can we encourage kids to think, explore and experiment?

Here are some suggestions gleaned from my classroom and family experience:

Provide lots of materials that the children can freely access. Paper, markers, crayons, glue, tape, scissors, Play Doh, simple musical instruments, puppets. (There are recycling centers with free or low-cost materials in all kinds of textures, shapes, and colors.) Offer open-ended construction toys like Legos, Tinker Toys, wooden blocks, Toobers and Zots.

Provide space. After Shabbat, our tablecloth is put away and our dining room table becomes our work space, filled with papers, scissors, and scraps. I am saddened by children living in beautiful homes where top dollar is spent to provide the best education, yet the children become prisoners of their possessions because everywhere is too nice to get messy.

Provide clothes for creating – clothes the children can be free in. I've taught preschoolers afraid to paint, "'cause mommy will be angry if I get dirty." Dress your kids so they can learn and play and do. (I, too, would be upset if an expensive blouse were ruined, so I buy as much of my kids' clothing as I can from yard sales, synagogue sales, and thrift shops. Beautiful designer finds can be had for a dollar, and I can throw a stained garment out with little remorse.) When my children come home messy, I tell them, "I see you had a good time. I'm glad."

Allow your children enough unstructured time. What may look like just fooling around may be important learning, dreaming, experimenting, integrating, and being time. I know a well-meaning mother of a bright little girl who shuttles her from lesson to lesson – art, music, sports, math enrichment – and hovers over her every move. The child has developed a passive attitude, always looking to adults for stimulation and validation. Children need time to develop their own inner resources and trust themselves.

Listen. Listen to your children's stories, visions and questions, feelings, fantasies, plays and music. Enter into their world. Expound on their ideas, write them down and read them back. Show that you value their inner world by sharing yours. Talk about your dreams and questions, those of your childhood and of the present. Children are fascinated by learning that parents are also growing and searching.

Model creative behavior. Children learn far more by what they see us do than by what we say. Let your kids see you having fun, "doing your thing." One reason I felt comfortable painting and drawing as a child is because I saw my father do it. Keep small instruments around the house, make music and try different sounds together. Most important, have lots of fun.

Brainstorm and problem-solve with the kids. Verbalize your dilemmas and questions (in an age-appropriate way): "Hmm. It's 2 o' clock, and I have five errands I want to run, but I have to be back by five o'clock to make dinner." Let them help you sift and prioritize. They often come up with great answers! Show them that adults also have to find solutions and take risks.

Expose your child to many modes of learning and expression. It is becoming widely accepted that our society's emphasis on left-brain linear thinking and analytical skills is but one piece of the cake. Musical, mathematical, sensory, nature-oriented, graphic and spatial-physical are all modes of learning. By exposing your children to many styles and experiences they will likely find their voice, and not feel frustrated and inadequate by being forced into a way that isn't their natural tendency, like a square peg squeezed into a round hole.

Unplugged time. Make sure enough free time is unplugged and unglued from the TV, VCR, video games, hand-held electronic games, and even the computer! I'm not talking here about the violence, commercials, and low moral and intellectual level of programs – that goes without saying. Even the best educational videos foster passivity. The computer, while having much educational potential, still involves sitting quietly in front of an electro-magnetic field, a certain detachment from the world, and a binary mode of thinking.

Experts agree that children learn most thoroughly by manipulating physical objects and using as many senses as possible – playing with blocks, water, paint, sand, etc. Computers do open many new vistas; just don't overlook the foundation of good ol' fashioned build and climb and run and balance and scribble and being time.

Now that your child (and maybe you and your inner child!) is designing block castles, finger-painting green sunsets, baking mud-pie extravaganzas and performing pot-and-pan-banging sonatas, I'll give you one more suggestion:

Praise descriptively. Minimize ratings like "good, be-you-ti-ful, gorgeous, stunning!" Why? Several reasons:

1) Try to get away from the good/bad, nice/ugly dichotomy. Even if you only use the positive, it's implying that there is a bad, ugly, boring, plain, stupid out there somewhere. The child often feels his work isn't that exceptional and may apply the negative. He also will feel pressured to come up with something outstanding or fall into the pit of BAD. This leads to the "I'm not creative, I can't draw" clam-up and withdrawal in so many older children and adults.

2) It's too easy. We can throw out a "gorgeous" without even looking up from our book. Instead: Look at the creation and describe enthusiastically what you see. For example: "I love these red squiggles going around, and look at all those blue dots in the middle!" There's no value judgment or rating, and the child knows you really entered into his work. Be process – not result – oriented. It doesn't matter if the picture of Grandpa looks like a blob with chickenpox. The child was engaged and trying to express something; don't give the feeling that a certain result must be achieved. The time engaged with the creative juices flowing is a pleasurable one that the child will want to repeat if she is not pressured or judged.

One of my students loves to sit on the floor singing to herself while freely covering a large paper with expressive, copious amounts of paint. She really loses herself in the colors and flowing brush strokes. I see her art in process; it's involved, concentrated, wonderful! Her mother has the challenge of reading backwards in time when she is handed a brownish blob paper (with colors that become dull when dried) by a paint-stained child. The end product – not that impressive; the creative process – incredible!

Display and enjoy your children's work in a relaxed atmosphere. If you value their efforts, they will too. A wall filled with a child's creations speaks volumes. As a young-un I remember thinking, "Oh, I'm an artist, 'cause Mommy hung up my pictures with her other paintings." In addition to the self-confidence, ingenuity and ability to express oneself we hope to foster, the creative experience can help develop sensitivity to spirituality. A child with a rich inner world can become oriented toward looking beyond the surface to the essence, and used to listening to his or her inner voice. Creativity can be used for a higher and deeper end than aesthetic beauty, being avant-garde, or the expression of self in the limited ego sense. The creative spark comes from the Creative Source, and has powerful potential if used to fulfill our Divine mission of being "co-creators" in making the world a dwelling place for G‑d, a place of spiritual goodness and beauty.

To have its spiritual power and potential fulfilled, our creativity should be inspired by true and deep sources. We don't have to turn to fairy tales, mythology, or pop culture. Let your child's muse be nourished from Torah stories, Midrash, the beautiful ideas of Ethics of our Fathers and Chassidic thought. The Aleph-Bet letters were (are) the building blocks of creation, that's a good place to start.

Turning Off the Drama

November 22, 2009

Some kids are very dramatic. Everything is a big deal. They cry loudly when slightly bruised, shout loudly when slightly impatient and whine loudly when slightly annoyed. Nothing is subtle. Other kids aren't that way all the time but, hey – they might also have their moments!

The problem with drama is that it is very catchy. When a kid gets all emotional, he triggers a similar response in the parent. Then the parent's hysteria further fuels the child's upset. And they both go spiraling out of control. Here's a little scenario to illustrate the dynamic:

Mom: "Hurry up. We're going to be late. Come on, get moving!"

Child: "I can't find my brush! Who took my brush? I can't leave until I brush my hair and I can't find my brush! I'm not going to school today if I don't find that brush!"

Mom: "I don't care whether or not you find that brush – you're going to school, is that clear? And stop running around like a chicken with her head cut off and just get your coat on because we have to leave!"

Child: (sobbing and screaming) "You always ruin my life! I hate you! You don't care about me at all… you only care about school. Well I don't! I don't care and I'll just run away when you drop me off because I'm not going in there with my hair unbrushed!"

You get the idea. From the pot to the frying pan, the conversation gets worse and worse. It didn't help that the mother in this scenario lit a little fire in the beginning by rushing her child along. In fact, parents can help their children learn to de-escalate by modeling a calm approach to important issues. Getting to school on time is important. However, it doesn't mean that parents have to get edgy when talking about it. Getting edgy when talking about important issues just models the "drama" approach, even if on a more minor scale.

Mom could have said something like, "Please move along because we're leaving in five minutes." While that might have modeled a better approach to the urgent matter, still, it would not necessarily have prevented the youngster from getting hysterical about the missing brush. However, once the child is expressing him or herself hysterically, it becomes crucial for the parent to de-escalate the conversation. The parent will have to overcome his or her natural, biological tendency to catch the hysteria. However, if the parent has the previous intention to respond to hysteria with absolute calm, it can be done. Just instruct your own brain: "The more hysterical my child is, the calmer I become."

If the parent in this case had been able to respond in a slow and low voice to the child's upset, she might have been able to help the child's nervous system calm down. "You can't find your brush? Would you like to borrow mine for now?" Even if the child still wants his or her own brush, the conversation is at least not taking a destructive bent. Even, if in the worst case scenario, the child just cannot collect him or herself, the parent has modeled a better way of responding to upset and alarm which may have a beneficial future impact on the child – particularly when the calmer approach is modeled repeatedly over two decades of parenting.

In order to respond calmly at intense moments, parents need to keep the larger picture in mind. It isn't about the brush, arriving to school on time or any other mundane issue; it's about how to live life. The Talmud teaches "upset pays no dividends, whereas forbearance and patience lead to health and longevity" (Kiddushin 41a). Parents can model and teach a healthy way of handling stressful moments every day, because every day contains so many such moments. So, next time your child loses his or her cool, try hard to keep yours – it's the most powerful thing you can do.

Morning Rush

November 15, 2009

Dear Bracha,

My eldest son, who is almost six, wakes up much earlier than my younger son, almost four. The older one wants my attention just when I need to start my day and prepare food for breakfast and lunch. Then, when it's time for my younger son to wake, the older one wants to play with him, and often they begin to fight. I get no cooperation from him, which means no cooperation from my younger son, who is fond of imitating his big brother. I hate having to raise my voice before leaving the house instead of spending it happily with my children. Additionally, I am often late to work. Any suggestions?

Worn-out Single Mom

Dear Single Mom,

You obviously have your hands full, and with no backup at home you are at a two-against-one disadvantage. However, as you explained, your older son is the focal point of this problem.

Attention is what every child wants, and they are willing to do almost anything to get it. It is a subconscious need that compels your son to act the way he does. The good news is that it is perfectly normal, but the trick is how to get him to act in a more "helpful" way.

We, adults, are driven by time. We have jobs, carpools and commitments. Children, on the other hand, are completely oblivious to all this. Time, and the pressure you feel in the morning, means nothing to your son. You must cast away any negative feelings that place the situation in the realm of deliberate non-cooperation. Instead, look at the situation from an attention/fun point of view – your child's view. The fact that he is willing to wake up early to spend extra time with you bespeaks his need strongly. I would suggest that you must satisfy his need, but on your terms.

So how do you give your child the attention he craves, on your terms, and still get out the door on time? You have several options. The key is to remember the definition of attention – Touch, Talking and Eye Contact. Provide attention to give positive reinforcement, and withhold attention to discourage behavior. But what we are really talking about is to add it at crucial times to increase cooperation and keep your older son engaged. He wants to be with you; messing around with his little brother is just a way to get you to focus on him again. Inevitably you will start talking with him to get him to stop – that's attention. (And P.S. – do not give rewards such as candy and gifts,, for good behavior. They are bribes and set a bad precedent. Extra rewards for good behavior should be hugs, kisses, high fives, extra songs or stories, etc.)

Suggestions for increasing positive interactions include:

  • He can help you make the lunches. Keep up a positive conversation with him as he assists.
  • Play music, and sing with him as you work.
  • Get him to help dress and take care of his little brother with your guidance. The three of you will be in the room together, instead of leaving him "out" of the interactions.
  • Make games to get your sons though some moments of the morning. Racing the "clock" is a good one. A task needs to be done, such as dressing, and you count while they dress to see how "fast" they can do it.

This little guy, this almost six-year-old, is now your best helper. He is capable of a lot when he is working alongside you. This will benefit him tremendously because you will be giving him justifiable praise for real accomplishments, and this is what leads to true self-esteem! You will let him know that you are so grateful for him because he is such a good help to you and takes such great care of his younger brother.

In the bedtime Shema, some people include the request: "…establish thou for us the work of our hands, the work of our hands establish thou it." Why is it so important that the phrase is repetitive? One of the answers is because every person, even a very young one, feels that their efforts are worthwhile when appreciated. Your son is waiting to help you with everything. He just needs a little instruction, and with a few fun games, he is going to do a great job!

You are on the cusp of discovery with your young sons, about to bond on a whole new level. Enjoy the journey. Wishing you and your family all the best!


The Deciding Factor

How to help a child who can't make up her mind

November 8, 2009


My twelve-year-old daughter has a very hard time making decisions. The truth is, I see myself in her because I'm the same way. Decisions were always difficult for me and I often procrastinate as a result. Therefore, my question is, "How can I help my daughter?"


From all of creation, only man has the power of free choice. All other creations are subject to the natural laws with which G‑d created the world. A ray of sunlight will always be refracted into a spectrum of seven colors and the sun will always rise in the east and set in the west. Even an angel's existence is static. Man alone has the capacity to become closer with G‑d through his ability to make choices on how to respond to life's situations.

Life is a series of decisions. Who you are today is a result of the choices you've made until now. We're constantly choosing: what to wear, where to live, to be happy or not. We even choose whether to make a decision or to have the decision made for us.

A decision entails tradeoffs, it entails commitment, and it requires one to take responsibility for the consequences of his choices. The very act of deciding limits us; it strips us of the illusion of freedom we have when all options are open to us.

Acting upon our decisions also takes courage. If we don't act, we don't risk failure. In this regard, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, in his book Me'or Enayim, informs us that with everything we do, the counsel and intelligence that enters our head before taking action is sent from G‑d. Hence, a life of faith helps us keep the sometimes-paralyzing fear of failure at bay.

Every day, our children, like us, are presented with a myriad of choices. Each choice they make reveals values, defines character and instills confidence to make further choices. Empower your children – from a young age – by teaching them to choose. Provide them with lots of opportunities to make small decisions. While too many choices can be overwhelming for a small child, allow them to choose their preferences within a given framework: An apple or cucumber, music or dance, baseball or basketball.

By nurturing our children with the ability to make decisions, we also teach them to think before they act, to understand the concept of cause and effect. A child who becomes skilled in these areas will learn to evaluate his options. And he'll feel good about himself and stand strong in his convictions, even in the face of peer pressure.

Every child is bound to make mistakes. While success is wonderful, failure actually provides more opportunity for growth. If after you've explained to your child the importance of finishing his book report, he chooses to play instead, let him. Personal experience is the best teacher. Later, refrain from using the "I told you so," rebuke, but rather, use this incident to talk about what he's learned from his decision. Here are some more tips to enhance your budding decision-maker:

  • Describe your child's everyday actions in terms of decisions: You chose to come late, you chose to share, you chose to break down the tower you built.
  • Teach your child that they have the power to choose whether or not to feel embarrassed, hurt, to forgive a wrongdoing, to despair or be optimistic.
  • Express confidence in your child's ability to make correct decisions. Shopping with a teenager provides an excellent venue for encouraging statements, such as "If you like it, it's nice," or "I'm sure that you will choose the right gift for your friend."
  • Use stories to explore different kinds of behavior and to delve into the idea of cause and affect. Help your child identify and reflect upon good and negative choices and the resulting outcomes. Ask thought-provoking questions like, "What do you think the character should do?" or "What do you think would have happened if the character had made a different choice?"

How to Tell Kids About Divorce

November 1, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My husband and I are divorcing. We have three young children, ages five, three, and one, and I'm very concerned how my children will respond to this upheaval. How do we break the news to the kids, and what should we tell them?

Divorce-Bound Mommy

Dear Divorce-Bound Mommy,

First of all, let me commend your maturity and your commitment to your children's welfare. It must have taken a lot of self-control to put aside your own pain and write this letter. Divorce is a trauma that sometimes makes it hard for parents to separate their children's best interests from their own.

The fact is that it is almost always in the children's best interest to grow up in an intact family. Research has shown that the trauma suffered by children whose parents have divorced lasts well into their adult lives, and even impacts their own ability to choose and commit to a marital partner. Therefore, divorce should truly be a last resort, and only considered once an extended course of therapy, i.e. at least six months, with a professional and licensed therapist has not been successful at improving the situation.

Furthermore, while divorcing couples may wish to get as far away from each other as quickly as possible, it is simply not in their children's best interest for them to do so. Rather, what children need from their parents at this time is that both parents demonstrate their commitment to continue to parent them and to remain actively involved in their daily lives.

Before you sit down with your children, sit down together with your spouse and try to make an agreement that details how you intend to make sure you both remain available to your children, and how to insure that any animosity between the two of you stays contained and does not overflow into your relationships with your children. This includes an absolute ban on complaining to your children about your ex, or making them feel guilty or disloyal for maintaining their intimate connections with both of you.

I strongly recommend seeking therapy or mediation together in order to receive expert help in the establishment of a divorce contract. This contract should include an agreement to not move beyond a reasonable distance from each other, i.e. no cross-country moves, within the first six months of the divorce, and if possible, not to sell your home immediately (if at all), in order to allow your children to get used to the changes gradually.

Then, once you have established the ground rules of this new world called divorce, sit down together with your children, and explain as best as you can what the future will hold. Explain where they will live, and how often they will see each of you.

Explain what the divorce will mean for them in concrete terms. For example, you might say, "On the days when you see Daddy, he will give you dinner and a bath, and then bring you home at bedtime," or, "On the days when you see Daddy, he will put you to bed in his new apartment, and take you to nursery school, and Mommy will pick you up after school."

Try to be calm as you break the news. Your children will take their emotional cues from you in order to understand how to interpret the news. If you and your spouse remain calm, you can help them make this transition as smooth as possible, and minimize their trauma.

I have tried to describe what the ideal approach is. But sometimes emotions are simply too volatile to allow for a calm, rational course of action. In that case, allow your spouse to read and digest this reply alone, and then discuss together the best approach for your family. In the event of conflict, for the sake of your children, do not hesitate to seek professional help.

The Talmud tells us that when a couple divorces, the altar in the Holy Temple weeps. I would venture to say that in addition to the tears shed over the dissolution of the marriage covenant, there is at least a portion of those tears shed for the sake of the children whose lives will be altered. Divorce may end to a couple's spousal relationship, yet they remain bound by a shared commitment to their children. Creating a workable post-divorce parenting relationship requires a lot of finesse, and sensitivity.

Good luck.

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