Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How To Nurture the Child Artist -- Or Kill It

Creativity is a characteristic given to all human beings at birth.
 -- Abraham Maslow

All children are born geniuses.
 -- Buckminster Fuller

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
 -- Pablo Picasso

My take on the last statement is that the problem is even worse: how is the child to remain an artist once he or she is born? I don’t for an instant question that inherent creative genius in children is “Nature”. For me this is a given, and at least in this essay will not endeavor to defend that assertion.

Bad Dreams Are Made of This
With the possible exception of those born with congenital birth defects (and even that is an open question for me), I believe the fostering of creative genius in children past birth is a “nurture” problem.

I assert that current society is not built to foster whole individuals, let alone creative ones. I assert that current society turns out damaged goods. How individuals function more or less intact is simply a function of degree of damage. As a whole we are not a society “running on all cylinders”.

I’m not in any position of authority in government, science or academia to determine policies regarding child welfare or education that will cause systemic changes – and I do see the problem as socially systemic.

What I see is as my mission – a spiritual mission, if you will – is to make socially significant interventions as within my power as an individual, and specifically as a creative artist and through my art, to create conditions by which children retain their creative abilities, and adults regain something of what they’ve lost.

Perhaps there’s enough blame to go around, but it’s not my intention in this writing to blame anyone, but to describe the problem as I see it, and propose a solution as I see it. I emphasis, “a solution”, not “the” solution; but I believe a crucial component of multi-level solutions to a multi-level problem.

First of all, once again, all children are born artists. Perhaps a more elaborated description of the term artist will be a good subject for many subsequent blog posts; but for this writing by artist I mean one who engages in creative expression of any kind, whether it be visual, musical, kinesthetic or whatever.

However, the capacity of the creatively-born child (i.e., any child) as an artist can be – and is often -- killed before the age of four years.

That creative capacity – the ability to think divergently -- is intrinsically connected to childhood identity-formation around self-worth, a sense of simultaneous uniqueness and universal connectedness, personal boundaries and the integration of physical, emotional, intellectual and sexual aspects of identity.

This happens at a time when the child is most vulnerable in every way imaginable. The first line of defense is in the caregivers – the mediators of the child’s environment, and his or her power to manipulate and exist in that environment, to ask for needs to be met and receive satisfaction of those needs. Most notable in this category are the gods and goddesses of an early person’s life known as parents; but also siblings, nannies, extended family and close friends are included. A short time thereafter, you add in teachers, coaches, etc.

A chaotic environment, one seemingly out of effective control by the caregivers, is a detriment to nurturing the creative child. Children will soak up their parents’ emotional distress like sponges. That emotional distress might stem from divorce, socio-economic hardship, racial, religious or sexual adversities. These distresses are unfortunately among the most “ordinary”. Downright neglect and abuse of any and all kinds adds a whole new dimensional layer, and it doesn't help if the child's neighborhood is under bombardment, does it?

These are hurts imprinted before the age of four years and then played out and reinforced soon thereafter in the classroom, playground and locker room by teachers, other children who carry their own internalized distress and by the children in question on themselves – children who beat up other children, children who beat up themselves.

Again, the point here is not to lay blame or point fingers, but to acknowledge what has been denied as the very real impact these social stresses can have on children. The impact may very well carry decades into adult life as an inability or inefficiency in functioning socially, let alone as creative artists.

There’s another aspect worth mentioning here; that I’ve written about before, to which I will undoubtedly return many times:

There will be those who point out creative individuals that have achieved some measure of public success, despite childhoods who grew up in poverty, in horrendously aversive or abusive environments, individuals who subsequently spent time in concentration camps, on the streets or in prisons. Some will argue that the creative success of those individuals was due to their early aversive experiences.

(In a somewhat similar vein, there are those who express in one way or another, “My daddy really whipped hell out of my ass, and I turned out fine.” I will certainly challenge this directly and with particular force; but that will have to wait for future posts. The fact that you can even say that indicates to me you’re far from “fine”. But, I now digress.)

I would contend that they were able to achieve despite their adversities, and to the extent that their adversities contributed to or shaped their later creative achievements, the survival of their creative inherent natures was due to something else. And that “something else” is close to the heart of my spiritual mission.

To interject a personal note, I’m a person of color who experienced a physically and emotionally abusive parent; racially and socially motivated bullying in school; and have spent the last five decades of my life dealing with the impact of these childhood experiences in various ways.

Dr. Alice Miller and one of my favorite authors, Andrew Vachss, used the term efficient witness to describe an individual who recognizes and expresses recognition of the inherent goodness – and I would add, inherent creativity – in a child or person. That individual serves as an intervening guardian angel, perhaps with a kind word or act that lasts a moment; but it could be a life-changing, life-enhancing, life-preserving word and moment.

It could be an Annie Sullivan. It could be a teacher or coach or probation officer or cellmate or AA sponsor or friend who sees something special and worth nurturing in some upstart youth with a troubled background.

The efficient witness could be you, and it could be me.