Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Creativity Question: at 40,000 Feet

I was on a cross-country flight yesterday and watched a 2 year-old boy and his mom play with Mr. Potato Head. The problem was, mom didn't want her little fella to make Mr. Potato Head his way. The boy would reach into the Ziploc bag, pull out a piece and immediately mom was pointing to where junior should place the piece on the spud -- and, of course, it was always in the "correct" spot. If he deviated and tried to slip a tongue in the ear hole, mom was grabbing his hand and guiding it over to the mouth area.

What's up mom?

Why do we have such a hard time letting kids do it their way? Admit have at some point, like me, tried to guide your child's creative ventures toward the "norm" -- the sun goes in the sky, every house has a chimney, hair should be yellow, not greeen -- or, in my own guilty case not long ago, the LEGO brick goes here, not there.

I consulted Wikipedia on the topic of creativity and found some fascinating reading material. No one seems to really be able to define, or more importantly, measure, a person's creativity or its significance.

I found one quote that sums it up quite well:
"Creativity, it has been said, consists largely of re-arranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know." George Keller

It wasn't until her 2 year-old, after repeated attempts to distort Mr. Poato Head's features, screeched at the in-air Bree Vandekamp that she, more out of embarrassment and respect for other passengers, allowed him to put the arm in one of the eye which point, all was suddenly right in that little boy's world.

And thus, the question is: are children simply small creators - after all, conception and birth are small miracles - born with the power to create? Are we conditioned away from being family, friends, colleagues, scoiety in general (how many times have you said "he's creative" which is a nice way of saying "he's a little off his rocker"?

By Keller's comment above, perhaps we don't want to know what we don't know, so we don't bother pursuing ways to throw order into chaos.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Tender Moments

I just hit the road on what amounts to almost two weeks straight of business travel, and was lucky enough to take with me one of those awesome moments we parents are lucky enough to receive that make all the chaos, stress and frustration of parenting disappear in a flash.

My wife gave the girls a bath the other night while I was packing. Afterward, she brought out their wish dolls -- special little stuffed fairy dolls that have a little pouch where they can write down a wish, roll it up and put it in the fairy's bag until it comes true.

Skylar asked my wife how to write "I wish my daddy didn't ever have to go away on trips."

So my heart melted and a tear came to my eye. This is the stuff parenting is made for.

Fiona wished she would have a wiggly tooth like her sister.

I'll take one out of two all the way to the bank.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Long Tail, of Parenting

I picked up a copy of WIRED mag editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's new book called The Long Tail. As I read Chris' theory on The Long Tail, that is, how culture and economy is more and more moving from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the "head" of the demand curve and toward a huge number of "niches" in the tail of that same curve.

I wonder how the "hit" phenomenon affects us as parents.

Often, we flock to the most popular parenting experts for advice. Remember the mad rush for Tickle Me Elmos? Marketers aspire to have the "hot" toy or the "it" fashion, or be the driving force behind the "must-have" trend or the "blockbuster" movie box office take. We scoop up a Maclaren stroller for our kids because that's what celebs are pushing even though anything on four wheels will get the job done.

As she blogs about parenting, Pamela Kruger wonders in a recent post whether taking kids to the super expensive theme parks specially designed for kids (in her case, Sesame Place) is more beneficial than a trip to Paris and the Louvre. Somehow spending money to make memories and provide mainstream fun for our children makes us feel like we're doing the right thing.

Anderson notes in his look at online retailers like Netflix and Amazon that even though there are a small number of huge hits (top ranking items) that are downloaded or purchased weekly and monthly, there is an even larger number of niche songs, albums, movies, books, etc. that drive a repsectable amount of business but would never be carried in a traditional bricks-and-mortar retail outlet because every square foot (no inch) of store space needs to ring the register...over and over again.

Consider Anderson's example that while Wal-Mart carries a healthy inventory of CDs, they sell only a small fraction of the music available for purchase because they only carry those albums that are "hits," because that's what rings the register most. It's the 80/20 rule -- 80% of sales comes from 20% of the products. So, to a shopper who only goes to Wal-Mart to buy music, their taste is directed only toward the hits. Go on iTunes, however, and you'll find the other 80% of the music available for purchase that likely better suits your taste and needs. Shopping at Wal-Mart, you'd never know about 80% of the available music.

If we are happy (and in the end more satisfied) to find a unique album and obscure artist on iTunes for our playlists simply because iTunes allows us, through links, user recommendations and suggestions based on our previous purchases, why does this not roll out to parenting? Is there a Long Tail to parenting that can help us shift from hit-directed parenting to find the niches that are right for our family, for our kids, for our style, for our budget? That set us apart from the mainstream and are more reflective of who we are as parents, as people, as a family...that is equally as acceptable as what everyone rushes to do, be, say and buy in the mainstream?

At face value, is a trip to Sesame Place more fun and memorable to a child than a trip to the Louvre in Paris? For the majority, the answer is probably yes. But if Anderson's theory translates from markets and products to families and experiences, there will be a not so insignificant number of families for whom gazing on the Mona Lisa will be the best and most memorable thing their family could do. But we have to be willing, as parents, to explore those niches to uncover the hidden joys.

The question is: do we most often settle for hit-driven and hit-dictated parenting? Why don't we, as parents, aspire to more, metaphorically, than what can be had at the local Wal-Mart? Do 80% of our best family memories come from only 20% of our experiences?

Please, share your thoughts! What do you think? Where do you look? Have you found a parenting/family niche? How does it change your parenting/family dynamic?

Parenting--Beach Style

I have spent the last two weekends at the beach with my family and noticed something that has me thinking: the beach is the BEST place to be a great parent. In watching what families do and how they interact while they're at the beach, it seems we should all move our daily routines seaside.

So what is it about the beach that we can take home with us?

1. No distractions. Sure, the occasional cell phone, Blackberry and iPod surfaces at the beach, but it's usually among the younger bathers. I noticed most parents were unwired at the beach, which helps us forget our daily worries and pay more attention to having fun.

2. It's okay to be a kid! Something about the beach brings out the kid in everyone. The beach surrounds kids and kids at heart with numerous opportunities for exploration and creativity -- building sand castles and forts, taking a walk to collect seashells, birdwatching, peoplewatching. Our beach even has a tide pool where you can collect hermit crabs. Plenty of creative materials and resources keeps kids busy and happy for hours, and promotes the whole family jumping in the fun together.

3. It's okay to make a mess! Of course, we don't want the kids getting sand in their eyes or mouths, but pretty much everything else goes. You don't hear parents saying "pick up those toys!" or "don't spill that water!" or "don't get your hands covered in mess!" The green light to make a mess is...gulp...the BEST way to let kids be creative and explore the world around them.

4. Physical activity. From swimming to walking to a game of catch or frisbee to cartwheels and handstands, everyone at the beach makes some time to get up and do something together.

5. Connectivity. The beach is usually a great place to catch up with old friends and their families, but is also a great place to meet new people. Whether it's a quick chat while in the water, kids sharing beach toys and helping to dig the biggest sand pit, somehow the simplicity and shared commonality of the place breaks down (even famoous New England!) communication barriers.

6. Fresh air. Somehow, the fresh air makes everyone breathe deeply and relax.

7. Even ground. Huh? This may be the best thing about the beach for parents: we're all starting from the same place. Mom and Dad usually don't end up resenting one another for anything at the beach because there are fewer opportunities for one to be "outdoing" the other. How does that work? How often have we ended up at odds because someone did the lion's share of the parenting while another did something else that had to be done? At the beach, no one has to clean or run errands or fold laundry or cut the grass or fix the broken whaetver it is. Mom and Dad can both feel good sitting back and taking a break while the kids play. Or they can share the opportunity to jump in and play together.

So, while I'm going to try to get back to beach as much as possible before the end of summer, I'm also figuring out ways to take the lessons of the beach home with me.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Best Things in Life are Free

Saturday evening we packed in the lawn chairs, blankets and snacks and headed to an old fort at the mouth of the Thames River in New London to take in the annual fireworks show. The girls were giddy with excitement, my youngest playing superhero in the grass while my oldest was turning cartwheels as we whiled away the daylight for the night time show. Typical to New England summer evenings, it started to get cold, we threw of the sweatshirts and got under the stadium blankets just before the light show started, and it was, in a word, blissful. Thousands of families surrounded us, picnicking, playing and relaxing. Decompression was contagious.

Sunday we repacked the chairs and snacks and headed to the beach. Fiona collected every shell she could find then built a sand castle for her princess dolls. Skylar ran back and forth to the water gathering funky seaweed in between sandy cartwheels. My wife and I sat back and read and relaxed, but we also got down in the sand and reconnected with our inner sand architects.

It got me thinking: why do we tend to overlook the most inexpensive and easiest things to afford us necessary downtime as a family?

We recently piled into the van one Saturday to take in the circus. Nearly $80 in admission fees and $75 worth of snacks and souvenirs left us, well, underwhelmed.

On its opening weekend, we took in Cars. $30 later (matinees are cheaper!) and $15 worth of snacks, and we had a nice time...sitting in the dark, watching a show and not interacting with one another.

The minor hassle of toting lawn chairs, blankets and home-packed snacks to a local park for a free fireworks show and we left relaxed, happy, excited, full of talk and with a lasting family memory.

Truly rich family experiences don't have to be an expensive undertaking. Typically those moments and experiences require only an investment of time and creativity.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Simple Cure for the "I'm Bored!" Summer Blues

Thanks to Tom McMahon at Kidtips for asking parents and grandparents to offer some tips in his weekly column for motivating kids off the couch and away from the TV this summer!

I especially like Rebecca R.'s idea:
A list of things I can do by myself: Ask your children to list 20 or more things they can do all by themselves (reading, drawing, playing with dolls, building with LEGO bricks, etc.). Save this list and present it to them the next time they say "There's nothing to do." It reminds them of fun projects they can enjoy all by themselves.

While they may argue with mom or dad about what there is to keep them busy, they certainly won't argue with themselves, right?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

In Praise of Dads' Role

Contrasting my previous post re: Ms. Baer's Father's Day "tribute", I found a nice story from Johanna Wilson at the Myrtle Beach Sun. Ms. Wilson knows the way to get more dads involved is not to scold them for their shortcomings, rather to praise them for what they do bring to a child's life.

I love the simple, yet powerful tips she adds at the end on how to be a super dad:

- Look beyond yourself.
- Listen and be patient.
- Don't be so serious.
- Bring the community into your home.