Synopsis: Kids are little bundles of imagination and they can amuse themselves with the simplest of household goods: a pot and a spoon, becomes a drum; a cardboard box turns into a fort, and a towel can transform them into a caped crusader! However, some parents tend to micromanage their kids’ time with structured activities and there’s little left for the child to explore the world. We talk to a self-proclaimed “odd child” and imaginative artist and also to a psychotherapist about the pitfalls of over-involved parenting and the benefits of letting kids be on their own to use their imaginations and test their independence.
Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: William Joyce, Oscar-winning filmmaker, author of the children’s book, Billy’s Booger: A memoir, sort of. Mary Jo Rapini, psychotherapist who deals with issues of family, relationships and intimacy.
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Imagination and Independence in Kids
Marty Peterson: Kids can be little bundles of imagination. What parent or teacher hasn’t marveled at the ability of a child to amuse himself or herself when they’re all alone, with only a few household props to work with? All they need is a towel as a cape, a wooden spoon as a scepter, and a colander for a crown, and a young boy or girl can instantly become royalty – ruling over dolls and stuffed toys, or maybe a few subjects only they can see! Some kids who are extremely imaginative are thought of as odd these days. Kids with their heads in the clouds instead of on the playing field often don’t quite fit in with the team or in the classroom. That was William Joyce’s young life. Joyce is the Oscar-winning filmmaker, author and illustrator who has written fifty books for kids, his latest titled Billy’s Booger: A Memoir, Sort Of. The genesis of the book is an assignment Joyce had in the fourth grade.
William Joyce: The book itself is just a silly thing I made up in the fourth grade about a kid who gets hit in the head by a meteoroid, and he and his boogers get superpowers and fight crime and do math very well. It kind of got me in trouble in fourth grade as part of a contest to see what kid could write the best kids book. But it turned out it was checked out of a library, which the librarian had put all of the books that were entered in this contest into the library. But then it got lost and I didn’t see it, like, gosh, until years and years later when I got my permanent school records. It was in there stapled to the fourth grade page.
Peterson: Joyce has put a facsimile of the original book – on construction paper just as he wrote it – in the new book. He didn’t win the contest, but his book was a hit with his peers, and that set him on the road to becoming the creative man he is today.
Joyce: Remembering the back story of it, of being a kid who was prone to drawing on his math homework and trying to make adventures out of 7 + 5. With an imagination that seemed insatiable – and this was the first outlet that seemed to give me some focus and fall out of that, and the fact that it was in the library then, in the school library, with the other entered books. The librarian told me, he said, you know, “Your book! If this will make you feel better [cause I didn’t win anything] your book is the most checked out book in the library.” So, that kind of like hit the spark for me, and if I hadn’t done this book, if I hadn’t gotten in trouble, if I hadn’t found out that my peers enjoyed it so much, the dots might not have connected. So, I wanted to tell that part of the story as well.
Peterson: Joyce’s classmates thought his book was great, but also thought he was a bit odd – especially when he started directing their recess on the playground.
Joyce: It was also my beginnings of a movie director, was on the playground as well, because I’d be like making up this game and it involved, you know, aliens invading, and we were fighting back and this person was the alien and that person was the guy that’s saving the day, and I was basically directing recess. So I was coming up with all kinds of stuff. And there were times where everybody was cool with that, like, “Yeah, this is really fun and awesome.” And there were times when it was like, “Can we just like play baseball?” and I’m like, “Guys, that’s just so boring!”
Peterson: He credits his parents with letting him be himself and explore the world on his terms. It was a childhood where going your own way was the norm, and parental interference in the job of being a kid was at a minimum.
Joyce: It gave you a chance to figure out grown-ups in a way. I mean, I hate to be too much of a nostalgist, but that seems to be what’s happening to me as I get older. And I think that happens to a lot of people. But the idea that in summer we run out of the door in the morning and we weren’t expected to be heard from again until dinnertime, maybe, and we knew to be home by dark – and so we went everywhere! That is kind of awesome, but it makes me sad that there are not that many kids that get that chance anymore.
Peterson: Yes, independence these days is the exception rather than the norm, and helicopter parenting is on the rise. Mary Jo Rapini is a psychotherapist who deals with issues of family, relationships and intimacy. She says that parents that spend too much time micromanaging their children’s lives hurt the kids and themselves.
Mary Jo Rapini: They’re overly involved with their children, many times they’re anguished, many times they do so much for their children; they’re so connected emotionally that they’re really, they’re no longer living a life that interests them. Their whole interest is consumed with what’s going on with their child. In a sense, you join them in that you just keep empowering them. You give them all of your energy, all of your time. Through your own life you kind of stop taking care of yourself. You may avoid exercise or eating healthy because you’re running out of time taking care of them.
Peterson: Rapini says that kids who grow up with parents always hovering over them, directing their lives and not giving them the freedom to experiment – and make mistakes – can end up with teenagers who don’t know how to relate well to others.
Rapini: Number one, they’re not confident. They don’t have any belief in themselves because all of their belief is really in their backbone, which is the parent who is hovering and, you know, they’ll be more fearful. They’re terrified of trying new things, so they kind of get rigid thinking, like they won’t branch out. They end up being more isolated and alone, and that’s what many times ends up leading to, like, increased anxiety or school phobias. If your teacher tells you your child is a loner or they’re not willing to play with other kids, many times that’s a child – I mean there’s many reasons what could be causing that–but a lot of times it’s because the child doesn’t know how to do that, like, they’ve never experimented with that. They’ve never been allowed to make their own decisions about friendship.
Peterson: She says it can also stifle imagination and creativity if parents try too hard to direct their kids’ activities.
Rapini: Kids lose interest in life. They become more bored because the parent is so invested in their activity; it’s no longer the child. If you don’t give a person or a child any responsibility, they will lose attachment; they don’t care about it. Many times these parents will say, “They just have no drive. My child has no drive. No interest to learn.” Many times that comes right back to them because they’re too involved.
Peterson: Some parents are afraid to let their kids fail – or even come in second or third — in any kind of activity or competition. Many sports teams for kids give everyone a trophy or a blue ribbon just for competing so that no one feels bad at the end of the season. Both Rapini and Joyce think this might help a child for the moment, but not for the long haul of life.
Rapini: They just don’t want any kid feeling left out, but feeling left out is a motivator – and feeling left out is an emotion that we shouldn’t stop. To feel sad, to struggle, is really, really important for children. Parents should never try to make their child happy. Nor should they ever parent out of guilt because those two things can actually hold your child back from growing inter-personally and emotionally. It robs your child of having strength and that’s the opposite of what you want.
Joyce: I notice that when my kids were growing up and, you know, they went to a swim meet and everybody got a trophy; it kind of takes some of the stuff, ambition out of it. I’m not sure how to put it. I mean, the best things that happened to me were the two times when I lost art contests because it made me redouble my efforts to try – so you have to have defeats. You have to have that so you learn to deal with defeats.
Peterson: So how can you encourage creativity in kids? Rapini says that children should turn off the TV and the computer every so often and find enjoyment from creating their own projects from art supplies and things around the house.
Rapini: Have time scheduled like in the morning, on the weekends, for two hours. Just have, if they’re small, have out paper, clay – anything like that with tactile, artistic stuff, paints, and have an area where they can do that and make a mess and you’re not hovering to go over and clean it up. Allow them just to be, and when they show you something, comment on it – the colors or what you like about it, and allow mistakes. When your child does something, when they try something new and they make a mistake. Really, really encourage that. Like, you know what, you know now what doesn’t work. That’s one thing I did in my parenting; I used mistakes as a positive all the time and my kids tried so many different things and they continued to.
Peterson: Despite parents scheduling activities and directing their kids’ lives, Joyce is optimistic that kids can still be imaginative and creative.
Joyce: That it’s something that no matter how hard we try, how many mistakes we make with raising kids, it seems like every generation has its own sins that it commits. They still find a way, I think that the imagination part of humanity is so powerful that – no matter what we do – we may subdue it for a period of time, but I don’t think we’re really damaging it. I just think that we’re not giving the free reign that it maybe needs.
Peterson: Allowing kids to explore the neighborhood alone and with their friends, make up their own games, and leave the structure of the school and sports team behind for a while can also help them become more independent and imaginative in their young lives and as adults. You can read how one “odd child” dealt with rejection in William Joyce’s new book, Billy’s Booger, available in stores and online. You can also visit his website at MoonbotStudios.com. For insight into family, intimate and other kinds of relationships, visit Mary Jo Rapini’s site at MaryJoRapini.com. For more information on all of our guests, log on to our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.