When my son was about five years old, I bought season tickets to the Minnesota Twins. Third row on the third base line. A work colleague’s Dad had had those tickets for years but was selling them because he was too old to walk down the 29 or so rows of steps to get to the seats each game. As a single working mom, this was going to be my way of bonding with my son. Every home game. If you’re a baseball fan, you know that’s a lot of games. It was the Kirby Puckett era and the Twins were contenders. I was totally into it. My son, not so much.
We were only a few games into the season when Nate turned to me and said, “So what do they do in that dig up anyway?” At that very moment, I knew I didn’t have a jock on my hands. I quit dragging him to baseball games and instead took my dad. Kirby Puckett was diagnosed with glaucoma and announced his retirement. I gave up my season tickets.
If my boy wasn’t into baseball, what was he into? We tried soccer. For one season. We tried basketball at the Y. That lasted about 6 weeks. Summer tennis lessons were pretty much of a bust. Not that he wasn’t kind of good at it. He just didn’t like it. He got his yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do, and then that was over. Luckily (or thankfully) he didn’t want to sit in front of the TV and play his Nintendo 64. That captured his attention about as well as any of the sports he tried.
The next year, Nate started first grade – and found his thing.
One night when I got home from work, I hadn’t even taken my coat off and he ran up to me and excitedly asked, “Can I take piano lessons? Please! Please! Please!”
“Piano lessons?” I thought to myself. I was forced to take piano lessons as a kid and hated them. Where in the world did this idea come from? Of course, I didn’t say any of those things. Instead, in an effort to be the ever-supportive parent, I said, “Sure, why not.” One of my neighbors taught music at Trinity Lone Oak Lutheran School not too far from us so I called him and asked if he taught piano lessons. Turned out, yes he did. He had a baby grand that took up his entire dining room. He gave lessons there. He staged recitals there.
Every Thursday for seven years Nate walked down to Mr. Block’s house for his piano lesson. For each level he completed, Mr. Block rewarded him with a plastic bust of one of the classical greats; Bach, Beethoven, etc. Nat proudly displayed his collection of the greats on his dresser in his bedroom. He was such a good student that he collected every bust that was made and Mr. Block had to come up with other gifts as level rewards. My son didn’t take piano lessons because I made him. He took piano lessons because he wanted to.
The thing about music lessons is that it’s an isolating hobby. Lessons are one-to-one. Practice is one to one. Even recitals are an independent endeavor. Children sit in their assigned chair against the wall, waiting patiently for their turn to perform and then return to their chair. Contrast this with sports where kids play with other kids. They learn the all-important skills of teamwork. They learn give and take. Most of all, they learn social skills.
When you have a creative child, you have to find ways to insert them into social situations. The wrong social situation can be devastating. A bunch of young jocks can destroy a creative boy’s self-esteem; intentionally (bullying) or unintentionally. It can be something as simple as a group of boys throwing a football on the church lawn after Mass. The creative child can’t catch or throw very well and the other boys make fun of him for it – or just quit throwing the ball to him. Yes, I could have taken Nate in the yard and played catch for hours. But Nate wasn’t interested. I wasn’t going to make him play catch.
Instead, I found team-based creative activities for him. He joined a Childrens’ Summer Theater group where they learned to build their own set [out of cardboard], memorized and rehearsed their lines and performed in public parks each weekend during the summer. He “aged out” of this program.
The next good find was a summer music performance camp. The campers were placed into bands, spent the week practicing their cover songs and their rock moves and on Friday afternoon they performed for friends and family at 7th Street Entry. The Entry, as it’s called by local musicians, is the small venue adjacent to First Avenue – the venue made famous by Prince in “Purple Rain.” By this point, Nate was 14 years old, had added guitar to his musical repertoire and was fully immersed in playing music. On that Friday afternoon in August, he stepped off the stage after performing Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” with his four gangly teen boy bandmates and proclaimed, “THAT was the greatest high of my life. I’m bummed I have to wait another year to do it again.” That put me on a mission. Find a performance-based music program that went year round. There were tons of summer camps. There were plenty of jazz music groups. I needed a contemporary music performance program that was available year round. I found it! It was called School of Rock.
Everybody needs to feel like they belong. Stanford assistant professor Gregory Walton is an expert on the importance of belonging. He writes, “Belonging is a psychological lever that has broad consequences. Our interests, motivation, health and happiness are inextricably tied to the feeling that we belong to a greater community that may share common interests and aspirations.”
Athletic kids often turn their sports league as their community. Academic kids feel their school is their community. Boy Scouts are the masters of this. What is a creative boy’s community?
The consequences of not belonging, as described by Professor Walton, are disconcerting. “Isolation, loneliness and low social status can harm a person’s subjective sense of well-being, as well as his or her intellectual achievement, immune function and health. Research shows that even a single instance of exclusion [like not having the football thrown to you outside the church] can undermine well-being, IQ test performance and self-control.”
Thankfully, School of Rock became Nate’s community. I know other creative boys who find their tribe in their community or school theater group. In St Paul, MN there’s a unique circus program for kids called Circus Juventas where kids learn to ride a unicycle while juggling, soar through the air on a flying trapeze, walk the high wire. Their performances are mind-blowing!
It’s in communities like these that our creative sons get their sense of belonging which feeds their self-esteem which gives them the self-confidence to tackle other challenges in life, like school work, giving speeches in front of the class and even remaining physically healthy. Not to mention having fun and making friends.
Creative children tend to be more curious than conformist. They see the world differently than those of us who are less creative. They ask “why” at every age about everything. Other children outgrow that. Creative boys do not. They look at problems from a different perspective. When my son was in Middle School he was instructed to write a paper about Spirituality and Religion for his religion class. He got an “F”. Not because he didn’t write a good paper. I’d argue his paper was brilliant. What it was not, however, was that it was not within the teachings of the Catholic Church. His paper, entitled “Spirituality Versus Religion” explored the concept of people being spiritual even when they did not subscribe to organized religion. His teacher told him that it is not possible to be spiritual without being religious and gave him an “F”. The conforming students wrote about the teachings of the Catholic Church and each was rewarded with a grade of “A” or “B”.
Parenting a Creative Son
One of the challenges in parenting the curious, creative son is that they often bump up against scenarios like my son’s paper assignment and they have to learn to maneuver through them. My job as a parent was to walk the fine line of praising him for being a non-conformist while also teaching him how to play the game of life.
We want our children to be independent thinkers but we also want them to succeed in the world in which we live: a world that over-values athletic boys and under-values creative ones.
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