Raising the next generation of innovators isn't about molding kids in anybody's image.
My father, still mourning the fact that none of his children went into medicine or investment banking, has been passing along selected stories from The Wall Street Journal, with an expectant preface: "I think you’ll find this interesting."
I’ve been informed that "Chinese Parents Are Superior," "French Parents Are Superior," and most recently, given a primer on "Educating the Next Steve Jobs." Internal red flags started waving: I love my iPhone and iPad, but do my daughters really need to aspire to be the next Jobs?
But it turns out the book that how-to guide was based on, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, isn't about molding kids in Jobs' image—or anyone's. The book, by Harvard fellow Tony Wagner, advocates for a childhood of free play—much like that of the star of Caine's Arcade, which features a 9-year-old's creations made of curiosity, joy, and cardboard. Caine's experience follows a simple formula Wagner explains: Innovation flourishes when play grows into passion and is channeled into purpose—with support from a parent who encourages, but stays out of the way.
Wagner’s research on young innovators and the vital role of supportive adults in nurturing them—without hovering, coddling or pressuring—led him to discover that "young Americans learn how to innovate most often despite their schooling—not because of it." Though the crux of Wagner’s recommendations—play, passion, and purpose, or the "3 P’s"—are designed to reduce parents' frenzy and release their kids' potential, there are major challenges attached.
Wagner advises us to let children play—and keep it simple. When play is unhurried and unstructured and allows time for boredom, it leaves space for discovery through trial and error. I'm trying—I'm working on paring down the number of toys in our home in favor of "sand, water, clay, paint, and blocks"—but I’m struggling with what to cull from our calendars. Like most American families, we are busy, though we've gotten better at whittling down. We're trying to follow a Sabbath principle—setting aside a block of open time to create centeredness and feed imagination.
Even harder than clearing calendars for play has been trusting my children with the freedom necessary to find Wagner’s second "P," passion. This may appear easy—Play! Discover your passion!—but it's more painful in practice because we must allow children to fail, fall down, and make mistakes. If my children are going to develop the sense of commitment they need to see a task to completion or create something completely new, I can't step in to fix things for them. And schools often have trouble dealing with non-conformist families who encourage kids to pursue passions outside of book learning, so I must accept that they may not earn straight A's and might confound their teachers.
Finally, Wagner found that the young innovators lived with purpose in realizing their passions. They carried a strong sense of the bigger picture and tangible values—a desire to give back, to do good, to live authentically, and to be connected to others. As I strive to nurture my three children, whose personalities vary as widely as their 10-year age spread, I’m working hard to step back so they can realize their purpose. Right now, they talk about growing up to be a doctor, an artist/entrepreneur and a teacher—not tech titans. If I can instill a sense of creativity and curiosity in any field while teaching them compassion and social responsibility, I'll have done my job.