Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter One - Inventing

The sandbox is not what it used to be - neither is the back yard, the family room or the school down the street. Raising a son or daughter in these times calls for parents with skill, humor and inventiveness.

While today's schools stagger under escalating criticism, conscientious parents find themselves filling in the blanks, providing their children with enriched learning excursions to offset the ditto sheet diets and dreary offerings that characterize too many of today's educational cafeterias.

When change and new technologies sweep through our society, the challenge facing parents can be awesome. Will this newest bandwagon keep curiosity and a sense of wonder alive in our children? How do we raise this generation to greet the next century with flexibility, imagination and a resourceful spirit? As change becomes a constant, we need a generation which views change as an adventure, an opportunity and a benefit.

We must raise a generation which has embraced a change ethic. They will thrive on change, considering it an opportunity to stretch out into the future and grow. Flexibility and problem solving can replace the GNP as the new indicators of growth of our society. Creating and responding to opportunities is an essential skill in our world today, in much the same way reading was in the eighteenth century.

Parents have a special teaching role to play in their children's educations. As primary caretakers and teachers for only a few children, they can educate their children in powerful ways. The role of parents in preparing their children for the future is critical because many of America's schools labor under worn-out, 1950s style programs. As adults working in the world, parents are often more in tune with changes in the world than schools. With important, but rare exceptions, the curriculum of today's schools falls short of preparing students for the workplace and society of today, much less, the next century. There is a large and growing gap between the lessons learned in the classroom and the skills needed in the workplace, and the gap is widening. Our children must do more than mark time in the nation's classrooms. Parents can equip their children to make the most of their school experiences.

The Information Age has turned both education and childhood upside down and inside out. Time-honored wisdom, time-tested skills and time-valued practices no longer suffice as our world changes swiftly and unpredictably. The sandbox is the cosmos, the vehicle is change and the pilots are our children, equipped with the tools of invention. Creating a spirit of invention in your household empowers your children with a new and powerful lense through which to view the world.

Why is invention so important to your child?

Invention makes it possible to alter, modify, and shift things around us to "make them better." Strong invention skills will enable your son or daughter to successfully adapt to a changing world. Just as importantly, it will make them happy and well-adjusted because they will be able to escape the boredom and frustration of maintaining the status quo.

Inventors are the envy of most people. To be able to come up with new ideas, solve problems and create is a universally admired skill. But everyone is an inventor at heart and can become a more active one! Invention can be taught. It is not simply magic or talent. It is a frame of mind, a perspective and a set of skills. One learns to rearrange and transform the elements of one thing into something new. Consider some familiar transformations. The crystal tube of early computer days has become a microchip. The desktop calculator has become a credit card calculator. Family conversations have moved from dinner time to the car on the way to gymnastics. Listening to a favorite radio program together has been replaced with a rented video. The inventor in all of us is always looking for "a better way." The familiar becomes novel as we make changes and adapt to changes that happen to us.

Despite the myth that inventors are a tiny group of creative individuals who slave away in little workshops, everyone can be an inventor and thrive in a changing world. In response to everyday challenges - commuting to the workplace, adapting to changing job expectations, or shifting family schedules - we create new ways to respond to the new and unfamiliar.

An inventive mind continually seeks opportunities. Instead of leaning back and cruising along, the inventor leans forward, eager to try something new, enthusiastic about the prospects of change. Sometimes this may mean rocking the boat. The inventor is on the lookout, propelled by a sense of wonder. "I wonder what would happen if . . ."

An experimenter by nature, the inventor has trouble keeping hands off. He or she cannot "leave well enough alone." A flower arrangement is impossible to pass without at least minor readjustment. When something is amiss, the inventor demands to know what is blocking the flow of gasoline or causing the roof to leak. It might be easier to call in a service person, but the inventor needs to know how things work and why they don't cooperate sometimes.

Fortunately, we parents need not leave the development of these traits to accident. DeBono, Osborne, Eberle and many other researchers have demonstrated that people can be taught to "get out of the box," to think laterally and to scamper. They can be raised as risk-takers and rule-benders who are more interested in what is possible than what is probable. Instead of a steady diet of two-step word problems and "the way it's spozed to be,", they can feast upon real problems that require inventive solutions.


Raising a generation of inventors begins at home with the atmosphere you set for your children. Are mistakes okay if you learn from them? Is thinking talked about as something valuable? Do the games you play with your child encourage the development of her or his imagination? In this section you will find specific suggestions about how to help your children learn the tools of invention while catching the spirit of "getting out of the box."


"What if" questioning opens up new possibilities. The open mind is able to get out of an unexpected traffic jam and improve the quality of life by changing what makes it unpleasant. Considering the alternatives starts the process:

What if I...

turned off?


checked the radio?

pulled over until it breaks up?

could figure out what the holdup is?

This willingness to explore new possibilities leads some drivers to test 20-30 different routes to work. Such an adventuresome spirit also is efficient if it is balanced by the ability to assess the value of each option in order to eliminate options which do not meet the goals of the driver. Invention ultimately requires judgment. It suggests careful choices based upon values. You have the skills and can make them part of your everyday activities with your child.

The early years

"Peekaboo" may be one of the first "What if?" games parents can play. By alternately hiding and reappearing, you seem to be asking, "What if I suddenly appear? Suddenly disappear?"

From the earliest age you can show your child that things don't always have to be what they seem to be. Instead of presenting life as a set of givens, unalterably set in concrete, show your child that life is a vast block set which can be torn down, built up and changed into cities, cathedrals, gardens and garages according to the whims and fancies of the players. Pandora's Box and the Jack-in-the-box should no longer be considered threatening as surprise and change are welcomed rather than shunned.

Join your child in play. Play involves "toying around." It includes pretending and testing out the unusual. Get down on the floor and play blocks. Sit in the doll corner. Sprinkle "what ifs" into the play. "What if we put this block here?" "What if we have a party?" "What if we changed Sally's dress?" "Could we make clothes out of tin foil?" Join in your child's "what ifs," encouraging the flights of fancy and the novelties that emerge.

Make sure your child's toys and games allow for play, providing enough options so that the players can modify, alter and rearrange. The word "play" is especially important in developing an inventive mind. Not all toys, games, or children's rooms allow for play. Playpen may be an oxymoron. Not all that passes for play may allow for a playful spirit. Play should allow for flexibility and change rather than routine.

On the road to an inventive life

"What if" games can be played in the car on long trips. "What if we turned off here to spend the night? What if the car broke down? What if we arrived at the cabin and found we had forgotten the key? What if the water is polluted and they don't let us swim? What if it rains all week? What if we had no electricity? What if it were 1800 instead of 1990?"

As you read to your child, stop to ask her or him to invent the next event. "What do you suppose will happen next? What would you do?" And keep reading to your child as long as possible, at least until he or she is ten years old, shifting the material to increasingly mature themes. As the problems of other young people appear on the pages of Judy Blume or John Steinbeck or Nikki Giovanni, your child learns what might happen if they were overweight or their horse died or someone discriminated against them.

School daze . . . what if . . . ?

When children enter elementary school and high school, the toys and the games may change, but you can keep encouraging "what ifs." Survival and success in school, for example, requires constant invention as students ask what will happen if they forget their homework, wait until the last moment to write a report, sit next to a talkative friend or test illegal drugs. What if they have a boring teacher, have already learned the lesson or don't care about the class? Will they accept each of these as givens set in concrete, or will they build a new and different set of realities?

Survival in school depends on how well your children learn to identify the expectations of the teachers, how to meet them, and what to do if they get stuck. "What if . . .?" questions can be used to clarify teacher expectations, as in, "What if I do a project on the local water purification plant with a full model and term paper? Would that be acceptable?"

"What if . . .? questions can also be used to generate alternatives. Asking "What if I do my math right after school?" leads to the exploration of the idea - there will not be anyone home to help me, I'll be finished by the time my program is on television, I'll be able to say I'm all finished when mom asks. Such thinking leads to being inventive about alternatives as well as scheduling.

The teenage years

Teenagers are especially ripe for "out of the box" thinking. To define themselves successfully, they must find ways to do things differently than you, their parents. They need to rebel, and rebellion can be a creative outlet. Almost daily they struggle with "what if . . . ?" questions. "What if I don't come home on time? What if I don't get a date for the dance? What if I don't get the newest style of jeans? You can help your teenager generate interesting answers to these questions with some tools for thinking.

Ordinary thinking is often linear. The mind moves somewhat rigidly from one familiar idea to the next. Such thinking can severely limit the ability to adjust to difficult situations. Such thinking restricts us to the obvious solutions and deprives us of novel approaches. We need to learn how to "jump the track" and escape the obvious.

For example, a sixteen year old may be having trouble with a new math class. Her grades have taken a free-fall. Usually an "A" student in math, she complains that she "just doesn't understand this class and this teacher." Her dislike for the class manifests itself in complaints about the subject, then the teacher, then her own ability to do the work. Sticking to linear thinking locks her into failure. She sees no potential for escape. She blames the teacher and the course. She stops taking responsibility. She is caught in a downward spiral.

Thinking divergently about the situation, on the other hand, provides new insights. Instead of considering the math class in isolation, her parents encourage her to compare the elements of this math class with other situations. Were her feelings like those she had in a recent cross country race? How does this teacher treat her compared to her coach? Compared with other teachers? How is this different from previous math classes? Where is she sitting? Can she see the board? How is she acting differently than she acts in classes where she is successful? What is she communicating with her body language?

These questions set her free from the traps causing the poor performance. She can now see strategies and changes that may improve performance and increase success. She discovers that she has been sending negative messages to the teacher by sitting toward the back of the room and showing both dislike and disinterest. She realizes the teacher is returning her negative messages.

At first the situation seems hopeless, but after thinking around and through the problem, she finds several ways to escape the downward spiral. She sets out on a new course of action to invent a new relationship with the teacher by altering key elements in her own behavior. She intentionally replaces negative behaviors with "teacher pleasing" behaviors. She sits up front. She asks questions as the class proceeds. She acts attentive, maintaining thoughtful eye-contact throughout teacher presentations. She speaks to the teacher in pleasant tones before and after class. She comes after school for help.

After two weeks of the new approach, her grades are soaring, the teacher is treating her kindly and she is beginning to enjoy the course. She has invented a new and improved classroom experience for herself and the teacher. While it sounds too good to be true, the story is based on an actual case study.

Inventive thinking can help teenagers with social challenges, too. What teenager has not struggled with rejection, infatuation and jealousy? "What if . . .?" thinking can help them to manage their feelings. For example, a teenager who is rejected by his girlfriend can ask, "What if I get on with my life, call up Diane or Susan and put this girl behind me?" or "What if I refuse to accept this and keep pursuing her?" or "What if I am mean to her so she regrets having dumped me?" Each question leads in a different direction, so the boy recognizes his choices and discovers opportunities to invent a better situation.

We all have a tendency to "go with what we know." Rather than taking a few moments to explore the unfamiliar and even the outrageous, we jump to the familiar. Teaching your children the "what if . . . ?" game early ensures they will think twice, and maybe even three times, before acting.

Chapter One - Inventing (continued)

©1991 JMcKenzie

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