Getting children to think outside the box



The Value of DIY Parents and Creative Children

Clayton Christensen is most famous for his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. But I believe one of his most fascinating insights is not in the book. It is about how some children grow up to become more creative than others. He claims (see the Youtube video below) that most children are born with very similar brains. However some grow up to become creative geniuses and others grow up to be of average creativity.

Interestingly, he reports, kids who grow up to be exceptionally creative seem to have one experience in common: their parents were do-it-yourself (DIY) people. When something broke down, at least one of their parents didn’t immediately call a repairman or woman. Rather they tried to fix it themselves first.

Clayton’s (I hope he doesn’t mind if I assume a first name basis with him here) explanation for this correlation between a DIY and a creative mind is twofold. Firstly, parents teach their children that they can solve problems themselves. Creativity is, after all, using new ideas to solve problems. So this is an important message to transfer to children, assuming you want them to learn to think creatively. Secondly, as any DIY parent knows, your first attempt to fix something often fails. So, you need to test your repair. If it does not work, determine why not and try a new approach.

Clayton compares this to innovation. He says, rightly, that many innovative new ideas fail in their initial implementation. The responsible innovators must then review what went wrong and try a new approach. Thus, he claims, DIY parents teach their children creative perseverance, which is important for creativity.

This all makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, although the video in which Clayton makes these claims is readily available on Youtube (and on this page), the write-up of his research is not available. Which is a pity, because his statements leave some wide open questions.

Firstly, I would be curious to know more about the statement that children are born with very similar brains. Does he mean that the brains are physically similar? To what level of detail? Considering that certain kinds of mental illness runs in families, it would seem that there is a genetic element to the kind of brain children are born with. And this is more relevant than it may at first seem.

Society has long associated creativity with madness. Now science is confirming that belief. Psychiatric studies indicate that there are three characteristics common to high creative production and madness: “These are disturbance of mood, certain types of thinking processes, and tolerance for irrationality.”

If mental illness is associated with creativity, and madness is similar in many respects to creativity, it is certainly plausible that creativity is more genetic than Clayton realises. And without the background to his research, we have no way of knowing whether or not this possibility has been considered and examined.

Likewise, a correlation between DIY parents and creative children does not, sadly, indicate cause. And Clayton’s language in the video is very much about correlation rather than cause and effect. An alternative explanation could be that a creative parent is more likely both to try and fix things herself and pass her creative genes on to her children.

Interestingly, when I described Clayton’s findings to a friend who grew up in what was then communist East Germany, she told me that “if that’s true, then every East German is highly creative.” She explained that simple services that we were accustomed to in Western Europe (as well as America, Japan, Australia, etc) were not readily available in communist Germany. And even when such services were available, they were largely unaffordable. So, when the toaster broke, parents really had no choice but to take it apart and try to fix it.

Whether or not it is correct to assume that being a DIY parent results in highly creative children, it is clear that it cannot hinder the raising of highly creative children and very likely helps. Therefore, if you have children and you want them to grow up to be highly creative, there is a lesson to be learned here. When a clock stops working, don’t throw it away and buy a new one. Rather try to fix it. And get your children to help!


1.Clayton Christensen’s Youtube video (above)
2.“Creativity, the Arts, and Madness” (date unknown),



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey