Trusting Our Children Can Be Hard, But We Have To Just Get Out Of Their Way Sometimes

by Steve & Kate's Camp
A mother and her daughter sitting on a grey couch in a living groom and playing togehter
SolStock / iStock

Remember when your child was born?

If you’re anything like us, you felt like you were holding in your arms a bundle of possibility. A chubby, adorable, drooling miracle ball of limitless potential. Maria Montessori once wrote:

“Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.”

Children enter our universe with all of the promise of what might be.

There is a large body of research that suggests kids are born with capacities that adults often lack: creativity, open-mindedness, endless curiosity. Kids ask more questions, make fewer assumptions, and approach life with a mentality of playfulness that has been proven to have enormous creative, social and emotional benefits.

The neural networks that kids form in their earliest years are almost entirely pruned away by the time they’re 17 years old. And while much of that pruning is necessary  —  so that, for example, you’re not paralyzed with awe every time you witness water coming from your shower  —  it also serves to prune away our kids’ insatiable natural curiosity. Simply put, childlike wonder and creativity have an expiry date.

And yet, here we are, living in a time where creativity is more important to human existence than it has ever been. A recent study by IBM found that 1,500 CEOs and world leaders agreed on a single trait that is important than any other in today’s society: creativity.

But what do we do with our children’s creative potential that the world so desperately needs? Sadly, we often squander it. And the price we pay is a world where, over time, what passes for “creativity” looks a whole lot more like “accentuating your brunch photo with a bold new filter.”

(Admit it. You’ve done it.)

How do we waste our children’s creative potential?

First of all, we educate them out of it.

In the most-watched TED Talk of all time, Sir Ken Robinson eloquently articulates the ways in which school kills creativity by putting kids into neat little boxes.

“By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that (creative) capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong… We stigmatize mistakes. And now we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

We know how the world works, we tell kids. We know what’s best for you, what you should learn, and how you should think. Don’t waste your time questioning us. We’ve got the answers. Start memorizing. And if “Knowing the date of the Battle of Hastings” doesn’t feel like a valuable life skill to you, kid, then I guess you’ve never watched a little show called ‘Jeopardy!’. Sir Ken goes on to say:

“Creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

After all, we can’t all be Ken Jennings.

(Which is probably a good thing.)

(…Imagine if we were all Ken Jennings…?)

But it’s not just school. It’s us, too.

Schools are an easy scapegoat for the constraints that we place on children’s ability to retain their natural creativity and curiosity. Clearly, the ancient bureaucracies of an education system born during the Industrial Revolution aren’t going to be changing overnight (Source: The Past 100 Years). There’s a complacent comfort in the narrative that schools will take forever to change their antiquated ways, because it gives us something to blame.

But let’s face it: Kids only spend about 1/3 of their waking hours in school. The rest of their lives are filled with other, more informal kinds of learning. And while it’s a comfortable narrative to say that school kills creativity, it’s much harder to face the ways that we do it as adults in our kids’ lives.

The most extreme example of this, of course, is the oft-scrutinized practice of helicopter parenting in America. For the most part, this refers to the tendencies of some parents to run their kids’ lives for them — to do their homework, complain about their grades, or even badger college admissions officers on their behalf. Stanford’s ex-dean, Julie Lythcott-Haims, recently wrote a book about the epidemic of “over parenting” and the dangers that it has on children’s development.

And while most of us think of helicopter parenting in terms of coddling or indulgence, renowned educational author Alfie Kohn contends that “helicopter parenting might more accurately be described as excessive control of children” — that is, not trusting that kids are often far more capable than we give them credit for.

(Pro Tip: If you’re wondering whether your kid is ready to graduate from ‘safety scissors’ — deep in your heart, you probably already know.)

Getting in the way of creativity

Of course, extremist helicopter parents are not the only guilty parties here. As child psychologist and best-selling author Peter Gray points out, we’ve all been guilty of squeezing out the very unstructured play that gives kids the freedom to make their own choices:

“Since about 1955, Children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities… In free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that results are byproducts, not conscious goals of the activity.”

And it’s not just the absence of free play. It’s the subtle nudges that can add up over time to influence our kids’ creativity. By psychologist Martin Hoffman’s estimates, we change our children’s behaviors against their will once every 6 to 9 minutes, or about 15,000 times a year. Yikes.

Not exactly a recipe for unleashing creative potential.

The world is built for adults, and we have a tendency of (for the most part, unintentionally) biasing our children into thinking and acting in more limited ways. We unconsciously guide our kids into asking fewer questions, taking fewer risks, and learning pre-digested things in narrowly defined ways.

We are at an impasse. Kids have creativity. The world needs creative people. And yet we are suffocating their natural ability to stay curious, ask tough questions, and approach life as though there is no one right answer.

So how do we get there?

This one time, at Steve & Kate’s Camp…

More than 30 years ago, when Steve was a young camp counselor, he experimented with trust in a way that has now become one of our favorite stories.

Steve’s camp bordered on a forest of willow trees, and he would let the kids wander freely, on two very strict conditions. First, you had to take a buddy (so that someone could come for help if anyone got hurt). Second, if you heard the sound of Steve’s airhorn, you had 60 seconds to get back. No exceptions.

One day, weeks later, the kids invited Steve to see what they’d been up to all of this time. They led Steve into their willowed domain, and there stood an epic, spacious three-bedroom apartment, built with the branches of the willows. Left to their own devices, the kids had built a palace beyond anything that Steve could have imagined.

In Kids We Trust

Trusting kids is hard. And times have changed, so that letting kids roam free in the forest isn’t quite as feasible as it was 30 years ago.

And let’s be honest. Trust is an ongoing experiment, and it doesn’t always work out. Like that time that we did carpentry at camp and trusted kids to use their own tools, and one of our campers nailed his entire project to the floor. (It still looked great, but it made taking it home a little awkward.)

Still, it’s vital that we seek out ways to give kids the space to be themselves, and to learn to trust their own judgment. Because kids can never reach that limitless potential we see in them if we don’t get out of their way.

We believe that when you trust kids, they develop the confidence to trust themselves and hold onto the childlike imagination that will propel them into a more creative and fulfilling life.

This blog is an exploration of the many nuances associated with this complex and sensitive topic. We call it The Trust Experiment because despite 37 years of running summer camps that put kids in the driver’s seat, we know that we aren’t even close to having all the answers.

We hope you join us in finding them together.