When I was a kid I loved journals. My mother often took me and my brothers to the local bookstore and I would sneak over to the isles of fancy notebooks while my brothers picked out picture books, or more often, played with the trains. Gingerly running my fingers over their leather spines I imagined how it would feel to fill their textured pages with my words, thoughts and feelings.
Eventually my mom caught on and over several Christmases and birthdays I amassed a small collection of them – some leather, some embroidered, some enveloped with amazing photography. I treasured the books for years, but I never wrote in them.
Occasionally, I sat down with a pen and opened one. I explored the distinct coolness of its cover and the grains of its pages. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write, imagining it unfolding across the page; then I put my pen down, shelved the book, and headed outside to play.
That was during my preteen years. Those years after blissful, naive childhood but before the grueling, time-consuming academics of high school. It was a time when I could still afford to be creative but was starting to forget how.
Children are born with unapologetic creativity. The kind of “creativity” I am talking about is the kind that strives to understand the world through engaging all six senses and a curiosity that doesn’t know the meaning of embarrassment. Kids dance, play, sing, draw, paint, without any reserve. I was definitely a good example. But there comes a time in a child’s education where the capacity for undisciplined creativity is lost. For me, I encountered that transition at the end of elementary school – when the concepts of perfection and order were introduced. By the end of middle school, raw and unrestrained creativity was all but shut out of my learning. There was no longer room for self expression, and more importantly, no more room for failure.
When I opened those journals I had an idea in my head of what the final product would look like; my handwriting, the format, the substance of my words. In those instances where the pen hovered over the paper the pressure of my own expectations frightened me. On the rare instances when I actually wrote something I never made it more than a few pages; I lost the pen I was using, I forgot the correct heading format, the words I was writing felt all wrong, or even, sometimes, I simply made a spelling mistake. No matter what the project and situation was, if it was no longer perfect, I abandoned it.
Sometimes I wonder if our education system is teaching children that perfection should be revered while failure should be condemned. This setup leaves no room for creative thinking or exploratory learning; in fact, it punishes children for these actions unless they happen to achieve perfection on the first try. For me, the lesson that failure is unacceptable seeped so deep into my world that it began to affect even the most private area of my life – personal journaling. If I couldn’t be creative there then I couldn’t be creative anywhere. I was setting myself up to live a life of constant personal disappointment.
Ultimately, I got extremely lucky. I landed several amazing, unconventional, teachers during those crucial years. In high school I joined a community theater, a place dedicated to reteaching children and young adults how to express themselves. While there, I forgot the stifling expectations of an accelerated high school experience by reminding myself daily that failure is the mode by which you discover who you are and how you learn.
But not all children will have the opportunities I had or be exposed to the same experiences. I don’t know what the answer is, or really how to define the problem, but it is something that merits attention. First of all, we can’t sustain a society on a fear of failure because it implies fears of experimentation and innovation which are the base of all positive change and problem solving. But almost more importantly, raw creativity and the exploration of self-expression are the two most beautiful ways to experience life, and no child should ever, ever be afraid of them.