Beyond Discouragement - Creativity: How to Raise a Creative ChildShare
In the immortal words of M. Python, "and now for something completely different." For this column, I won't be railing against the demeaning mad genius myth and its wobbly underpinnings. Instead, I will discuss this unrecognized gem of a book, in which world-renowned artist Bernard Poulin -- a very un-mad genius, and father of two -- discusses protecting the budding creativity of children from the things that are likely to squash it.
2014 year brought a delightful piece of serendipity to my mailbox. When Canadian Bernard Poulin read his local newspaper’s account of my book, The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius, he was moved to send me a copy of his own, Beyond Discouragement—CREATIVITY: How to raise a creative child (Classical Perceptions, 2010).
Poulin (POO-lin) is a successful and world-class professional (see his amazing artwork here). Beyond Discouragement builds on four decades of his so-called “wonderings,” as well as his years of working with kids in remedial settings, and is illustrated with his own charming drawings. It's hardly news that self-publishing can restrict one’s audience—this book has been out for four years without acquiring a single amazon review. But it also enables authors to color outside the lines of political correctness without alarming any editors. And so this one does. Frequently.
True, the area is already chockablock full of advice. A Google quest for “teaching creativity” produces 50,000 hits, while amazon offers over 4,000 resources of its own (including that 24-pack of quill feathers in assorted colors, and the fuschia violin). As you'd expect, most books were written by educators, psychologists and motivational entrepreneurs of various stripes. It’s far less common to hear from those in the actual trenches whose immersion in creativity is most direct, personal, and visible—i.e., the artists themselves. It’s even more unusual when these author/artists have a background in mental health, and can pinpoint the issues of psychological concern.
In fact, Poulin’s history does give more weight to his wonderings. Originally trained as an elementary school teacher, and later certified in special education, Poulin founded a residential school in a former orphanage. A warm and welcoming respite for children with difficult living situations, his school flourished for three years until the government pulled the plug, dispersing the young ones from the only home and school many had ever known. Poulin then ran the first-ever classroom for troubled French-speakers for the local school board, as well as one that was part of a psychiatric hospital. In 1978, after too many battles over the benefits of nurturing staff versus psychotropic medication, Poulin began his visual arts career.
As his success increased, so did his passion and ideas for nurturing creativity. His book targets a wide range of its “discouragers,” such as stifling educational practices that are more concerned with classroom management than learning, and parents who blindly surrender their role to specialists and advertisers who claim to know what’s best for their kids. Poulin notes that few address what he considered to be one of his key parental responsibilities: instilling a sense of wonder and silliness in his children.
Together with his generous helpings of common sense, Poulin serves up some practical ideas, like how to transform “time out” periods from their familiar disciplinary role into something that actively builds family togetherness. There are instructions for making a bathtub studio where kids are free to get messy, another creativity “encourager.”
After forty years of wondering, Poulin’s aim is wide as well as deep. For example, although globalization is commonly considered a sign of progress, he calls it “homogenization,” and decries its negative impact on creativity as “a devastating virus…that renders us safe in the bosom of sameness.” In fact, globalization does file down the contours of individual cultures without really bringing people closer together—except to produce a world full of eager consumers who all want the same stuff.
Another Poulin-ese provoker is how television spreads “the cult of victimhood,” where “failings are sold to us as more interesting and ‘attractive’ than talents or accomplishments.” Many pundits have compared reality stars to the carnival freaks of old, but Poulin takes a step sideways, arguing that such entertainment poses a specific modern danger to budding creativity: “it encourages ridicule, sneering and belittlement [and] scares our children, who fear that one day, someone will see them as worthy of being sneered at and belittled—just for the fun of it.” When you consider the growing scourge of bullying, it’s clear that such a “one day” is already here.
Finally, I was particularly moved by his eloquent reminder that “children need to dream and wish for” or they will “shrivel and shrink and become less than they are.” This reminds me of psychiatry’s dismaying efforts to make “daydreaming” an official symptom of several childhood disorders. These days it’s not only part of that old standby, ADHD, but also its proposed converse, “sluggish cognitive tempo.” Aside from the curious presence of the identical “symptom” at both ends of the pathological spectrum, I resent their hijacking a lovely musical term for such punitive purposes.
But that’s a column for another day. For now, I’m just happy to recommend this wise, lively, and useful little book to all who cherish creativity and want to help it flower.
The Insanity Hoax is the first book to directly challenge the mad genius myth by exposing the pseudoscientific foundation it sits on, as well as the social and psychological reasons for its widespread popularity. The myth is far from being the universal “truth” people think it is.
Based on her thirty years of research as well as creative and therapeutic experience, psychologist Judith Schlesinger tracks the stereotype through centuries of changing history and culture, explaining why it remains powerful despite its lack of empirical support. The Insanity Hoax also reveals creatives’ own perspectives about how the artistic life can make a person crazy, all by itself.
A scholarly yet entertaining read, The Insanity Hoax is a groundbreaking book that should be read by students, teachers, practitioners, admirers and critics of creativity and the arts; mental health professionals; and especially those who believe that exceptional minds should be celebrated, rather than diagnosed.