Childish Things

There's something that really puzzles me about our culture. On the one hand, creativity is something that we encourage--ad nauseum--in our children: "Use your imagination! Express your creativity!" And yet, on the other, to be creative--an "artist"--is somehow the last thing that we want them to become: it's so impractical; you might never get a break; artists are more likely to go crazy and commit suicide than, say, doctors or lawyers or businessmen.* We are willing to allow a few people to be extravagantly creative (musicians, film makers, authors of best-selling novels) while labeling all others who engage in creative (a.k.a. artistic) work as childlike nerds who live in a world of their own fantasy.** We are constantly incited to develop our own creativity: "Express yourself! Try something new!" And yet, to enjoy the products of others' creativity is considered "escapist" or, at best, a waste of time; there's nothing productive, after all, in reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music or playing a computer game. And so forth.

How is it that is simultaneously both a good and a bad thing to want to make something (a book, a painting, a song, a poem, a movie, a computer game, a movie, a play); both enviable and ridiculous in a way other activities simply are not? Children play at being all sorts of things: warriors, doctors, parents, scientists, firemen, construction workers; and yet, we do not consider being a parent childish simply because little girls play at being "Mommy." To want to continue to play with paint or make up stories or dress in costume, well, that's something else again, not something one would seriously want to continue doing once one grows up. It's the same to a certain degree with sports. We want children to play sports, use their bodies, learn skills, but to try to make a career out of sports is somehow less than grown-up, however lucrative it may (occasionally) be.

The really puzzling thing for me, from this perspective, is that children aren't actually any good at art or "being creative." Most of what they make is, well, childish, not the stuff one would consider the pinnacle of humanity's efforts to express itself. Adults are the ones with the real imaginations; they're the ones writing the great novels, composing the great music, acting in the great plays, designing the great buildings and painting the great images. The stuff hanging on the walls in schools looks--let's face it--all pretty much the same. It's the same with sports: most seven-year-olds are not great baseball players, and most ten-year-olds can barely hold a foil correctly, never mind do the footwork. Of course, we all worship child prodigies, but the majority of our great athletes and artists are adults, not children--and yet, we still think of sports and art as somehow "childish".

Okay, so I'm clearly trying to console myself here for being older than perhaps I am comfortable with and still trying to make my break as a fencer, but I know that as a writer I am much more "creative" now than I ever was as a child. Yes, it is important to give our children opportunities to attempt a number of different kinds of activity as they are growing up as well as to give them the training that they need to develop particular kinds of skills, but how is it that we applaud their every scribble with a crayon when they are three, while at the same time accusing them of wasting their time drawing comics or inventing worlds when they are thirty-three? A child who draws well is the stuff of adults' admiration and praise; a thirty-three year old who draws well is somehow not quite fully a grown-up.***

Perhaps I am overstating the matter, but I'm not the only one who has argued that our culture has a problem with creativity. The thing I don't get is how we came up with this myth of "art is for children, not serious adults." I know it has roots in the Romantic movement (innocence as the source of contact with the creative spirit, thus the emphasis on children) coupled with the Renaissance idea of artistic genius (only the "gifted" make great art), but how that should result in a conviction that making art is irresponsible and childish, I am less clear. The Protestant distrust of sacred images clearly has a role to play in our ambivalence, and the commercialization of art, particularly through advertising, certainly hasn't helped. But, of course, I think it goes deeper than this.

Think of some of the other things that we tell ourselves about children: that they have insights into things that adults cannot have, that they are open-minded and trusting, that--yes--they have faith, thus all the experiments that the evolutionary and cognitive psychologists have done trying to determine when, exactly, they lose it. Children (we tell ourselves) are more religious than adults because they are able to believe in things like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. Still to have faith when one grows up is, well, childish. Ahem. Thanks, Freud--but why are we so convinced the great Viennese doctor was right? As with art and athletics, maybe children aren't really the ones who are the best at being faithful, anymore than they are the ones who produce the most moving art or achieve the greatest athletic feats. Perhaps, just perhaps, faith is something like art that takes time to develop fully, and a child's faith is to an adult's what the crayon drawings on the fridge are to the paintings hanging in the National Gallery: immature.

It's ironic, is it not, that we tend to give up on children's artistic education at about the same time that most people stop going to church: when they're young teenagers (12 or 13). While it is fine for children in kindergarten to spend their time "being creative," by high school they need to be doing something more serious--math, science, um, English--not just doodling dragons and warlocks on the back of their homework. I know, I know, I'm overstating the matter here. There are lots of good creative writing programs out there, as well as children's symphonies and choirs, but it's the overall tendency that I am interested in. Being "creative" and "faithful" is acceptable in children; in adults, it's okay if you're a genius or saint, but otherwise something better left to...well, whom? Those who are willing to look ridiculous if they fail? Those who are lucky enough not to have to worry about making a living? Those who get a break?

As one of the great creative writers of the twentieth century, Dorothy Sayers, put it, we think in metaphors; the one great metaphor that Scripture gives us for thinking about God is this: "God created" (Genesis 1:1). If (as both Jews and Christians most definitely believe) we are created in the image and likeness of God, then to be creative is simply our nature, while "being creative" is what makes us most like God. Yes, we should be encouraging our children to "be creative"--but not because art is mainly for children. Likewise, we should be encouraging our children to think about God--but not because believing in, that is, trusting God is something we can or should only do when we are young. Children's art is simple, as is their faith; but it is just that: simple, unpracticed, immature.

Of course, not everyone even as an adult is going to produce what others see as great works of art, but that is not my point. It is, rather, that we examine our beliefs about creativity in light of what Sayers says we know about God and, conversely, our beliefs about God in light of what we tell ourselves about creativity. If we tell ourselves that creativity is good for children but frivolous for adults, then it is clearly no wonder that we tell ourselves the same thing about faith; likewise, if we appreciate that children's art is, in fact, childish, then perhaps we will be better able to realize that maybe there is more to faith than we learned as children. Perhaps, like the paintings hanging in the National Gallery or the special effects we pay so much to see in the movies, mature faith--a mature understanding of God--is something that takes years of practice and education to attain, not something childish at all.

*A myth, by the way, with only anecdotal evidence to back it up.
**Think of all those conventions where people dress up in costume or look at comic books or play RPGs. Good, you see what I mean.
***My husband disagrees and says that I am overstating the matter here. Artists are highly respected, he says, as long as their work is any good. But I'm really not so sure about this. Artists who make a lot of money with their art (e.g. film makers) are highly respected, but my suspicion is that this is simply an effect of the money, not the art as such.


  1. I think it's 6 of 1, half dozen of the other - artists who can make a living at it ARE revered, but they are so few and far between that there's the impulse to put down a person's creative efforts if they haven't paid off monetarily by a certain age.

    Brings up other questions as well: 1) Why does a creative effort only have "meaning" if you make money from it, or entertain others with it (actors, athletes, etc.) 2) Why can't one make a living AND be creative (if not in the job, then in an avocation)?


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