It takes energy to conform

Published by Lori Pickert on November 17, 2011 at 01:55 PM

The scientists took a large group of undergraduates and randomly assigned them to two different groups. The first group was given the following instructions:

“You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?”

The second group was given the exact same instructions, except the first sentence was deleted. As a result, these students didn’t imagine themselves as 7 year olds. They were stuck in their adolescent present.

After writing for ten minutes, the subjects were then given various tests of creativity, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tire, or completing incomplete sketches… Interestingly, the students who imagined themselves as little kids scored far higher on the creative tasks, coming up with more ideas that were also more original.

As the brain develops, the prefrontal cortex expands in density and volume. As a result, we’re able to exhibit impulse control and focused attention. The unfortunate side-effect of this cortical growth is an increased ability to repress errant thoughts. While many of these thoughts deserve to be suppressed, it turns out that we also censor the imagination. We’re so scared of saying the wrong thing that we end up saying nothing at all.

[T]he “fourth grade slump” in creativity that Lehrer refers to above — children experience a marked decline in creative powers around that age — is thought to be the result of the increased social obligations they assume at that stage of life. As kids devote more energy to conforming to the group, there’s less available for being their freewheeling selves. Creativity for Introverts, Psychology Today

Without the intense pressure to conform, many homeschooled/unschooled kids have the opportunity to stay more in touch with their own, freewheeling selves. They’re not too scared to express themselves; they don’t have to censor their imagination.

If we adults manage to stay away from the cliques and groups that would pressure us to conform, maybe we, too, can tap into our third-grade selves.

How much energy are we wasting on conforming instead of creating?


Comment by Heather on November 17, 2011 at 02:26 PM

I find this so true in our daily lives. Those that we encounter who attend school (even the :enrichment" program offered by the local district) seemed so stifled. I love the energy, excitement and creativity that non-conformity brings. Luckily after many years, I have begun finding my true self and the free-wheeling person I am. Conformity is no fun.

Comment by Carolyn on November 17, 2011 at 02:46 PM

This kind of reminds me this Ted Talk:

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 17, 2011 at 03:01 PM

heather, i experience this all the time when i worked with mixed groups of kids. some are so unwilling to relax and play and just enjoy the process — they are always looking for the hidden trick ("is this going to be on the quiz?" attitude). they seem to feel like they are being judged — by me, by the other kids. others easily fall into a playful, experimental mode — they are just having fun with it, seeing what it can do. it's really interesting.

carolyn, thank you for the link. for those without time to watch, this TED talk describes how kindergarten students do better than business school graduates (and most other adults) at a challenge task that involves building the tallest tower possible from dry spaghetti, tape, string, and a marshmallow. the business students jockey for position and power while the K students do several iterations and experiment. it's an interesting talk — thanks for sharing!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 17, 2011 at 04:19 PM

it offers an opportunity, but it's by no means a sure thing. i was chatting this morning with a mom whose homeschooled daughter is being bullied. and there are some families who homeschool in quite a rigid way. but - it does offer the opportunity. simply deciding to homeschool usually takes some willingness to move against the group.

Comment by Barbara in NC on November 17, 2011 at 05:54 PM

I love this alternative explanation to the fourth-grade slump--it's so much more optimistic than that the drop in creativity is just due to the cognitive demands of maturity.

I am hopeful that my happy, free-wheeling, confident 10-year-old will be able to keep herself intact and not have to spend years remembering who she is.

And I am very thankful to the many adults and kids who spend time with my kids, re-affirming that their authentic selves are just fine, and that they do not need to be anyone other than just who they are.

That right there is enough reason to homeschool, if you ask me!

(Reason #87 on "unexpected positive consequences of homeschooling." The list grows all the time...)

Comment by amy on November 17, 2011 at 06:19 PM

I wonder if it's taking my 7yo so much energy to conform to what's expected at school, and that's why we're left with a ragged, oppositional kid the rest of the time. "He seems so fine and happy at school," they tell me. Anyway, that's what I thought of when I read your title.

Comment by Lynn on November 17, 2011 at 07:15 PM

Ms. L -- I have been loving your recent posts, but especially this one. Thank you! Perhaps everything eventually comes full circle, because as a Person of a Certain Age, I am finding that I am interested in conforming less and less with each passing year. By the time I hit 50, I shall be 100 percent socially unacceptable! >;-D

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 17, 2011 at 07:34 PM

hi barbara! :)

teaching art classes has made me very interested in the fourth-grade slump. that transition from younger kids who are free and easy to older kids who seem so stressed about the quality of their work, hunching over their paper and gripping their pencil so tight. it takes so long to get them to ease up on themselves and have fun drawing again.

it is a great reason to homeschool, i think - take that pressure to conform away and see what happens. kids can get past that fourth-grade slump art-wise if they are supported and if they *never stop drawing*. that self-criticism is kept in check by kids who have a *lot* of output. i'm thinking it should work the same for creativity in general - the kids who get to keep creating and making and playing can keep that part of themselves alive.

amy, i do think kids who go to school (and some to after-school programs, too) do end up both spending their best hours away from home AND letting it all hang out when they finally get there. i can actually remember a dr. brazelton episode about that - lol, i'm so old - where he talked about how kids who were in daycare would fall apart at night because they *could* fall apart, because they were finally home and they could stop holding it all together. :)

and by "best hours" there, i mean the hours when they're at their best - well-rested, fed, alert, cheerful. maybe i'm just a person who needs way more rest than the norm, but i know almost all my energy is expended before 3:00 in the afternoon. :)

hi, lynn! :)

thank you, thank you, you are too kind.

i was just chatting with a couple of friends on twitter about the exact same thing - i practically used your exact words. :) that shedding of other people's expectations and being able to focus on what really matters to you is a real gift!

Comment by Arwen on November 18, 2011 at 02:16 PM

I had a few random thought as I read this, wondering how some pieces fit together.

Is this a biological thing or a social thing or both?

Might children start experiencing it earlier and earlier now that they are starting school sooner and encountering social pressure sooner? Come to think of it, there is evidence kids are maturing biologically earlier on average too. I wonder what the implications of that are on this.

I also wonder whether this might be part of where I picked up labels like "creative" and "gifted" growing up. I was oblivious to a lot of social cues (I now know "social blindness" is common in people with ADHD) for a good part of my life. I wonder if it's all related, like I was able to be more "creative" because I didn't know any better.

Also, is this related to the current topic of discussion over at Artful Parent, where her kindergartner (or maybe she's in first grade now; I forget) seems to have given up a lot of her more original artwork in favor of drawing like her friends?

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 18, 2011 at 02:59 PM

i think it's both. the fourth-grade slump when it comes to art means kids are suddenly old enough to look at their drawing and realize it doesn't look like what they're trying to draw — they suddenly realize the gap that ira glass talks about, and they don't like it. so they quit. they would rather *not* draw than draw something that looks (to them) bad.

this fourth-grade slump is about kids realizing their social obligations and curtailing their own behavior, their own ideas, their own contributions to fit with the group and not stand out. so, biological and social both, i think.

"Might children start experiencing it earlier and earlier now that they are starting school sooner and encountering social pressure sooner? Come to think of it, there is evidence kids are maturing biologically earlier on average too. I wonder what the implications of that are on this."

interesting. i know that waldorf talks about a six-year .. i can't remember what word they use. but if kids do mature at a younger age, they could conceivably reach their slump earlier.

i wasn't aware of the conversation at artful parents, but i'll check it out!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 18, 2011 at 03:16 PM

sorry, arwen, i had to get off the computer suddenly & didn't quite finish responding to you. :)

"I wonder if it's all related, like I was able to be more "creative" because I didn't know any better."

it's been shown that kids can move through their fourth-grade *art* slump if they have support, if they're in the right environment, if they *just keep making a lot of art*. it seems to me they could stay creative and expressive, too, if they are in an environment that encourages and nurtures that.

over and over again, i see experts writing papers saying that kids are less creative because we don't nurture that.

thanks for your great comment!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 18, 2011 at 03:20 PM

here is the post at jean's blog for those who would like to read it:

"Maia is at the stage where she wants her drawings to look like what they are supposed to look like and yet her drawing skills are not up to the task yet of matching either the image in her head or the object in front of her. And when they don't, as is often the case these days, she can get very frustrated. I'm not really sure what to do about this. Sometimes I'm able to talk her out of her frustration and tears (everyone's drawings are different, there are so many ways to draw a horse, etc) but not always. She also wants her drawings to look like her friends' drawings, which is frustrating for me (although not her)."

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 18, 2011 at 03:31 PM

and here's the comment i left at jean's blog:

at my reggio-inspired school, public-school students brought in the handprint turkey. it was obviously not something we would encourage. we stayed as far away from symbolic drawing and cookie-cutter crafts as we could get. when the children who'd been introduced to them started making them in the studio (during free drawing), the studio teacher initiated a thoughtful discussion. "is this what turkeys really look like?" kids: "noooooooo." then, because we didn't have a live turkey to look at or draw, they pulled out nature books and the encyclopedia and talked about turkeys, then drew "real" turkeys. they even made three-dimensional turkeys. i think this is a very thoughtful way to lead children away from symbols and crutches and back toward observation and real drawing.

re: the fourth-grade slump (i know maia's quite a bit younger! :), a lot has been written about helping children move past that stage when they suddenly realize that their drawings don't look the way they *want* them to look - their skills don't measure up to their ideals, and that's when many children stop drawing. to work through this, children need to be encouraged to keep drawing, they need help in developing their skills, they need reminders that their skills *will* improve with practice (and *every* artist must do this), and they need an environment that supports making art often (preferably every day!). the kids who keep drawing make it past the slump, and they'll keep learning and progressing.

Comment by Arwen on November 18, 2011 at 03:54 PM

You have given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

Here's another question for you. Have you noticed any differences in the way this affects grils vs boys?

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 18, 2011 at 07:13 PM

i have sons myself but i've worked with both, and i don't know. off the top of my head, i don't think so. i'd be interested to hear what other people think, if anyone but us is still looking at this thread. ;^)

Comment by estea on November 20, 2011 at 06:37 AM

this is fascinating.
and you KNOW the whole "increased social obligations" thing makes me craaaazy.

Comment by Florence on November 21, 2011 at 01:17 AM

Wonderful wonderful post. Thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 21, 2011 at 01:37 AM

thank you, florence! :)

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