Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter One - Inventing (continued)


Think how inventive you have to be survive a morning commute to work. How often does traffic jam or public transportation break down? How do you adjust your routine to pick up someone at the auto repair shop or to stop for an errand? Basic to the skill of invention is rearranging the familiar elements of a situation.

When you change your route to work to pick up a friend or colleague, you may be systematic and review the alternatives to decide on the best route. You may use trial and error to find your way after the pickup. You may count on the person you are picking up to direct you.

The inventive mind keeps asking "What if?" Faced with a change in routine, the inventive thinker begins considering alternatives. How did you learn how to do this kind of thinking? How can you share this kind of thinking with your children?Because your children watch you and learn from your example, you can powerfully influence their commitment to inventiveness by being a good model.

Talk out loud in frustrating situations

When things just aren't going well, how do you handle it? When the washer or the car stops working right, do you immediately call for a service person to fix the problems or do you open the hood and begin hypothesizing? When you try a new recipe and the cake turns out flat, do you blame the recipe and throw cookbook and cake into the trash, or do you laugh at the new creation and try to figure out what might have gone wrong? Do you taste it to see if it just looks terrible?

What does your child see when you are in potentially experimental situations? What example do you set?

Let your child in on your "experiments"

Do you ever cook without a cookbook? Do you ever change ingredients or steps in recipes that are tried and true? What's the worst that could happen?

The kitchen or the home workshop are excellent places to introduce children to invention, that is if cooking and building still occur in either location in your home. You and your child can bake four different cakes with four different versions of the same recipe, playing the "what if" game described above. What happens if there is no sugar? a little sugar? a lot of sugar? or brown sugar instead of confectioner's sugar? As you work through this process, share your thoughts aloud so your child can hear how your mind works.

Problem solve together

You and your child can build a bookcase together, starting from scratch, consulting no professional plans. You sit down together with pencil and paper and invent the bookcase. You begin, perhaps, with "How big do we want it?" and move on to questions such as "How many feet of board and how many screws do we need?" Along the way you may encounter unforeseen problems and you will seek inventive solutions. The bookcase may not turn out as well as if professionally planned, but then again it may be far closer to what you wanted and your child will have learned how to translate vision into reality without someone else's plan.

Share your playful side

Make up music! Create a family band with pots and pans and other noisemakers. Sing nonsense songs in the shower! Let your child see you playing around with tunes and lyrics, sometimes singing off key, unafraid to make a mistake.

You need not be handy with everything in the home. You need only model an inventive spirit part of the time in order to encourage your child's natural inclination to mess and tinker with things. Instead of teaching reliance upon others' inventions, you show your child the rich treasures buried in his or her own mind.


Children should grow up with a full diet of fantasy and fairy tales. They should be encouraged to entertain visions of sugar plums dancing and frogs turning into princes, for this diet helps to fuel a lifetime of invention. The ability to invent what ought to be is strongly connected to the ability to imagine what could be. Wynken, Blynken and Nod had the right idea, sailing out each night to cast their nets at the stars. Ideas are free when you make them up yourself, and worth millions in the pleasure they bring.

Image building

There is an important difference between an active imagination and a passive one. When children relied upon story books to learn their fairy tales and stories, their minds created vivid motion pictures to supplement the few illustrations that appeared in such books. Today the child may well have a library of video tapes which leave little to the imagination.

Imagination involves image building and image creating. It requires free associating and flexibility. Make certain your child has many chances to create his or her own visions of what might be, for children must develop their ability to create images in order to solve problems and create something better. If they are raised on a constant diet of images processed and provided by someone else's mind, they may come to rely upon others to deliver the "big picture." Frogs may forever remain frogs and Sleeping Beauty may never awaken.

Coloring outside the lines

Supplement the ever popular coloring books with chances to scribble and draw outside the lines. What happens if you color the sky red instead of blue, the banana green instead of yellow, the skin brown or purple instead of white? Try the collection of Uncoloring Books which provide visual starting points for your child's own drawings. Keep the possibilities limitless for color, shape and texture. Saturday morning cartoons (in moderation) may actually help develop your children's visual flexibility if you start them thinking about where the characters came from and how they could evolve even further.

Encourage open-ended activities and play. Remember the games you invented in the back yard with a few friends from the neighborhood. With so many organized activities for children these days, they may miss out on the chance to turn the street into a moonscape, or the tree in the yard into a giant robot. If you squint your eyes, can you make the fence into a parade of elves? What something could be may be more important than what it is.

Super silliness

Basic to imagination "muscle building" is "pumping irony." Raise your children on healthy doses of silliness. Suspend judgment and stuffiness. Feed them on puns and nonsense. Hold silliness contests which reward the most extreme and nonsensical idea. Who can invent the craziest sandwich, for example? Who can come up with the worst movie title? How would you describe the most mundane event, like a bath, as if it were an adventure? What nonsense can you make up about your favorite television characters? What farfetched endings to stories or television programs can you invent?

Avoiding over-scheduling

With all the best intentions in the world, some parents fill their children's afternoons and evenings, weekends and summers, with structured classes and training experiences. While many of these classes may be taught by those who value creative play, there is a danger that the adult may dominate the learning so intensely that personal inventiveness is virtually prohibited. Anyone who reads the biographies of great painters and poets can find ample evidence of teachers of painting or poetry who try to impose their own visions and voices upon the young talents entrusted to their care.

Make certain that your child has plenty of unstructured time as well as the equipment or materials to fill the time with creative play. Since the best equipment requires the child to do a great deal of inventing, emphasize collections of "raw material" which can be transformed into some new version. A box of old hats, coats, shirts, ribbons and scarves becomes the raw material for costumes as the living room becomes a stage for childhood plays. A box of egg cartons, packing material, empty coffee cans, paint and assorted cast-off objects becomes the raw material for building space cities and skyscrapers. Every child should have access to a large table/work shop area where painting, cutting, pasting, sawing and inventing is encouraged.

But why not just buy the costumes, the space cities and the skyscrapers? Our toy stores are filled with gleaming toys that outshine anything a child can throw together in a home workshop. Why go to all the trouble? Why not let the child paint by numbers and finish with a painting that looks like a "real" sail boat? Inventiveness is a natural tendency for children unless we train it out of them. Given half a chance, children can turn an empty lot into a jungle or the courtyard of a palace. Their imagination can work wonders. If we supply them with finished products, we begin to discourage improvisation, adaptation, innovation and invention.


Television and home videos are decidedly a mixed blessing. They can enrich your child's imagination and knowledge base by providing a rich feast of visual images and by carrying him or her to distant lands and times. At the same time, the viewer is spectator rather than participant and there is danger that children will become consumers of fantasy rather than producers. TV fosters many attitudes which can undermine the careful steps you have taken as parent to emphasize values such as honesty, fairness, and cooperation. The fast lane world portrayed by Dallas hardly represents the kind of world we want for our children, yet it is possible to watch hour after hour during which violence, greed and deceit are paraded before the viewer in a vivid fashion show.

Select the content with your child

Children who watch 5-6 hours of television daily lose out on opportunities to develop their own talents and to explore the world outside. This is not to say that the television set should be banished from the home. Far from it. Television provides a wonderful window on the world. We suggest viewing should be restricted to an hour or less per day with substantial attention paid to the selection of content. Teach your child to use a viewing guide and establish a communication process which requires parental approval in advance.

With a little planning, you can have meals, study times and bedtime cut out some unrestricted viewing. During the times available to your child to watch television, make it a point to know what is on and talk about the choices. Show enough interest in the kinds of programs you approve of to watch them and discuss them with your child. Encourage them to view programs you think are consistent with your values. Talk about why some programs are off limits and why you would not recommend others. Make television a subject for discussion. If your children are viewing something worthwhile, it should be worth talking about too!

Chapter One - Inventing (continued)

©1991 JMcKenzie

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