February 6, 1998

Creativity and Conformity

There are no medals or awards for non-conformity.

When a kindergarten teacher tells a parent that "your child is very creative," it may mean that he finger paints on the walls, desk and floor. That very same word "creativity," is often applied as a term of high praise. The word "conformity," has recently fallen into disfavor. It connotes stodginess and inflexibility.

I have never been sure precisely what those two words, creativity and conformity, mean, particularly since the entire process of growing up is an exercise in conformity. From the day a child is born, all of a parent's effort is directed toward teaching him to conform. You don't have to teach rebellion, or non-conformity; that comes naturally as a reaction to a parent's efforts to make a child conform.

There are two basic ways to get a child to conform:the carrot and the stick. For most people, the carrot works better and is considerably less traumatic than the stick, for both the parent and the child. By "the stick," I am not referring to actually striking a child, which I believe should only be used in self defense, but to the whole business of punishment rather than reward. Most parents use both methods. However, most of what a child learns is less a function of what a parent does, than it is of the child imitating what he sees and hears. If he sees his parents reading, he will want to do it too. The same thing applies to toilet training, and a boy who sees other males urinating, will toilet train sooner than one who doesn't. To me, the phrase "toilet training" conjures up everything that is ridiculous in raising children. It is one of the few things in life which, the more determined you are to accomplish it, the less your probability of success.

I suspect that what educators mean when they talk about "creativity," is the ability to do things on your own and being able to figure things out. If a reasonably creative person loses the directions for how to put something together, he will probably be able to figure it out on his own; while the extreme conformist will be paralyzed. Most people fall somewhere between these two extremes. Even the most creative person will probably be able to put something together faster if he has the directions. It is his conformity that enables him to profit from the work and failures of others.

There are people who have been taught to conform to non-conformity. That message is a first class crazy maker. Many young people who have been given that message by their parents are in mental institutions. Teen agers whose parents give them the message that they mustn't be "conformists," may conform to what their far-out peers show and tell them, rather than to what their parents tell them.

The shibboleth of the '60s was "non-conformity." Many young people refused to conform to anything but rock music, drugs, and a dress code that made most of them easily identifiable. They were also united in their beliefs. Their non-conformity eased the transition from the hippie beads to the yuppie suits and ties.

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