During the pandemic, long stretches of social isolation inspired our tween daughters to come up with creative ways to entertain themselves and connect with their peers. Estelle’s daughter began building a virtual world on Roblox and choreographing TikTok dance routines. Juli’s daughter honed her piano-playing skills and learned how to sew.
Flexing creative muscles can help tweens weather tough times. According to the World Economic Forum, curiosity, complex problem solving and critical thinking (all vital components of creativity) are crucial life skills. And creativity researchers point out that this skill set isn’t just beneficial for tweens in a crisis; it also sets them up for success throughout life.
“Creativity is more than just cognitive ability — it’s about teaching your tween the right mind-set over the long haul, so they can navigate life’s challenges,” says creativity researcher Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Younger kids automatically think outside the box but over time kids become self-conscious and risk averse, which can prevent adolescents from pursuing new passions. For instance, they may tell themselves “I’ll never be good at playing the guitar,” or “I’ll never master chess, so why even try?” These narratives can foster self-doubt and hinder creativity, but adults can help tweens stay in touch with their creative side by offering them support and guidance.
“It’s up to parents and teachers to help them rethink that premise, so they are okay with risk-taking and motivated to do it,” Plucker says.
Here’s how parents can help tweens strengthen their creative muscles.
Identify a passion. To many tweens, creativity may mean acting, writing or mastering a musical instrument. If those activities don’t interest them, they may not see themselves as creators, Plucker says. But copying the latest TikTok dance craze, coding a new video game or learning how to cook also count as imaginative exercises. Researchers say creativity requires kids to solve problems in novel ways, and any activity that lights up this process is creative.
Try brainstorming to help them find something that interests them. Parents can foster creativity by giving tweens space to try new experiences and identify something they enjoy and can feel proud of. Encourage them to try new hobbies such as songwriting, knitting or coding by watching free videos online and asking family and friends for help.
Be a role model. Boost tweens’ confidence by modeling creative thinking, including failure, yourself. Show them it’s okay to aim high and sometimes miss. If your tween aspires to write a poem, let them see you struggle to write one and discuss the process with them. Or let your tween see you wrestle with a work problem. “Demonstrate that being creative in daily life, and not just when called upon in stressful situations, is a useful state of being,” Plucker says.
Normalizing our mistakes can also lessen our kids’ fear of failure, say experts. “Failure is an option,” says Michele Borba, author of the book “Thrivers: The Surprising Reason Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.” “And that’s okay because kids need to understand they will find the answers some place in their brain.”
“Some experience of failure is the key to learning resilience. Devoting more time to any artistic craft or athletic pursuit fosters healthy brain development,” says Robert Root, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in San Francisco.
And make good use of the word “yet,” as Seth Godin advises in his book “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.” Godin emphasizes embracing the idea that “It’s not working (yet).” That magic word offers reassurance that while they might be struggling in the moment, if they stick to the activity, they will get the hang of it.
Tell tweens to “Just do it.” It’s impossible to predict what activities will capture a tween’s interest, so encourage them to try as many things as they like, Plucker says, in the hopes that something will stick. The flip side of this, though, is that they need to be allowed to stop an activity if their interest wanes, and try something else. Resist the urge to tell them they have to stick with something until it ends. That could backfire and make them more hesitant to take risks and try new things, for fear of being stuck with something they don’t enjoy.
Also, productivity begets creativity. So if your tween is passionate about writing songs, tell them to write a lot of them.
Offer verbal rewards. Borba says that you should encourage resourcefulness and open-ended thinking. For example, if a tween was baking and realized she missed an ingredient, and started researching it to come up with a solution, parents should recognize and praise that behavior. Say something like, “That is fantastic, that you are looking for a substitute.” This doesn’t take much effort, but it will help steer them in the right direction — kids who don’t feel they have to “color inside the box all the time” have been shown to have much better self-esteem, Borba says.
Borba particularly likes “earshot” praise. Let your tween overhear you compliment their success (without them knowing you want them to hear). (“Wait till you see Kisha’s drawings! You’ll be so impressed with her artistic ability.”) Overhearing it will magnify the praise.
Have them give you “the sell.” Ask your tween to present their work to you, Plucker says. To practice selling their work, like contestants on the reality show “Shark Tank,” tweens can explain what they created and why it’s useful. Promoting their product is another way to bolster enthusiasm for their creative pursuits.
Sharing their work also gives them an opportunity to receive feedback. To help them improve, parents can keep the interaction light and fun and make constructive suggestions (i.e., “How about adding a splash of blue to your painting to make the sky look more natural?” or “What about interviewing a social media influencer for your school newspaper story, instead of just your friends?”).
Estelle Erasmus writes the “All About the Pitch” column for Writer’s Digest Magazine and is an adjunct professor at NYU. Find her on Twitter at @EstelleSErasmus. Juli Fraga is a San-Francisco-based psychologist. Follow her on Twitter at @dr_fraga.