When we want to encourage creativity, we usually try to make sure people feel psychologically safe. Never shoot down an idea no matter how ludicrous in a brainstorming session, we're told, while teachers and managers are reminded to cushion negative feedback with positive reinforcement.
All this advice leaves the impression that creativity is a delicate flower that only blooms when it's sheltered from harsh debate. But while there is some truth to the notion that newborn ideas need nurturing rather than skepticism, star Wharton professor and Originals author Adam Grant thinks we've taken this commitment to hot-housing creativity too far.
Innovation requires debate to thrive, he opined in the New York Times recently. And that goes for families as well as boardrooms. If you want to raise creative kids, fight in front of them, he tells shocked parents in the op-ed.
Fighting our way to greater creativity
Of course, that doesn't mean parents should hurl insults at each other. If you do that, you'll push your kids towards therapy, not greater creativity. But substantive debates on actual issues - or even the occasional bickering disagreement about the best route to grandma's - won't do your child any harm. In fact, research shows that hearing these sorts of fights helps kids build skills necessary for creativity.
"Highly creative adults often grow up in families full of tension," Grant reports. "When adults in their early 30s were asked to write imaginative stories, the most creative ones came from those whose parents had the most conflict a quarter-century earlier... And when highly creative architects and scientists were compared with their technically skilled but less original peers, the innovators often had more friction in their families."
Why is this? Because true creativity requires persistence, resilience, and a willingness to face other's scorn, and the best way to build those mental muscles is to exercise them.
"If we rarely see a spat, we learn to shy away from the threat of conflict. Witnessing arguments - and participating in them - helps us grow a thicker skin. We develop the will to fight uphill battles and the skill to win those battles, and the resilience to lose a battle today without losing our resolve tomorrow," Grant writes.
"Disagreement is the antidote to groupthink. We're at our most imaginative when we're out of sync. There's no better time than childhood to learn how to dish it out - and to take it," he adds.
"Silence is bad manners."
But, as Grant points out, many families today are allergic to conflict, either because they see it as impolite, or because they fear seeing mom and dad get heated will somehow scar or scare kids. Instead, Grant suggests we should teach our kids that silence in the face of genuine disagreement is the real sign of disrespect. And the best way to do that (as with most life lessons) is to demonstrate it with our actions.
"Most parents hide their conflicts: They want to present a united front, and they don't want kids to worry. But when parents disagree with each other, kids learn to think for themselves. They discover that no authority has a monopoly on truth. They become more tolerant of ambiguity. Rather than conforming to others' opinions, they come to rely on their own independent judgment," Grant insists.
So go ahead and argue (about issues not personality) in front of your kids. As long as you keep the conversation substantive and make it clear that everyone loves and respects each other despite their disagreements, you'll help your children develop the critical thinking skills and mental toughness needed for real creativity.