Raising Producer Kids
September 2012 (perspective of a postdoc)
I propose that the best way to counter the ubiquitous consumer mindset that our kids absorb from mainstream society isn't to strictly limit their consumption, but rather to encourage them to become producers. I speculate on some of the benefits of a producer mindset and claim that those benefits are not too hard to achieve.
Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I don't have any kids of my own, and I have no firsthand knowledge about how to raise kids. Enjoy reading, though!
Fighting the Consumer Default
Just by growing up in modern society, your kids are being trained to become voracious consumers. They are bombarded with countless hours of advertisements on television, websites, and mobile phones, inside of games, at sporting events, while walking around on the street, and via their friends. One representative statistic is that American children watch 25,000 to 40,000 TV commercials per year. Hordes of advertising executives, market researchers, child psychology experts, and social media strategists are funded by multi-billion dollar corporations to turn your kids into captive consumers.
As a parent, how can you fight back? Face it—it's impossible to completely shield your kids from the onslaught of modern advertising. Of course, it's essential to set some boundaries and to teach personal financial responsibility. But beyond the basics, it might be detrimental to be the Luddite parent who refuses to let your kids watch television or go online. If you do so, then your kids will be ostracised by their classmates for being out of touch with popular culture, which is—almost by definition—tied to consumerism.
Instead, I propose a more pragmatic strategy: Encourage your kids to become producers. To the extent possible, have them strive to consistently produce something new rather than consuming all the time.
Kids as Producers
What your kids end up producing depends on both their disposition and their childhood environment. Here are some examples from my observations:
Producing isn't limited to creating tangible artifacts. For example:
What all of these activities have in common is that kids are creating something new—not necessarily new to the world, but new to them—rather than passively consuming what the media feeds them.
Benefits of a Producer Mindset
What are some possible benefits of kids thinking and acting as producers rather than just as consumers?
The short-term benefit is that engaging in creative activities can give them a deeper sense of personal satisfaction than the superficial fun that comes with passive consumption. The longer-term benefit is that it gets kids accustomed to entering a mental state of flow, which is known to lead to sustained happiness in adulthood and, in some lucky cases, to a fulfilling job.
Two sets of anecdotes reinforce my belief in the long-term benefits of a producer mindset: First, from observing my own friends and colleagues, many of the ones who now have interesting and fulfilling jobs were producers as kids; they didn't necessarily practice producing the things that they would later need for their jobs, but they just liked creating stuff for fun. Second, an academic study of over 100 famous creative people in diverse fields also reveals that many of them were voracious producers as kids. Most of these people were not world-renowned child prodigies, but they did develop childhood interests in various creative hobbies and spent many hours pursuing them for fun.
Of course, I am not claiming that producing is the only path to sustained professional and personal happiness; but from what I've observed, it's one possible path that's undoubtedly better than pure consumption.
The Good News
Fostering a producer mindset isn't hard. You don't need to force your kids to become recluses who spend all day and night locked in their rooms obsessing over creative endeavours. You can still let them spend the vast majority of their free time consuming media like all of their friends are doing; as long as you encourage them to spend at least some time producing, they can experience the benefits. In my limited experience, kids (at least in America) desire both conformance and uniqueness: Consuming the same media as their peers allows them to conform and fit in with the mainstream crowd, and producing gives them a legitimate sense of uniqueness, which can make them happy regardless of what their friends like.
The key here is intrinsic motivation—doing things for their own sake rather than for the promise of external recognition or reward. Your kids don't need to win prizes for their projects; in fact, they don't even need to tell anyone else about them. Some kids might like producing finished products to show off to their friends, but others enjoy the private process of creation and not necessarily the final product. For instance, a friend of mine spent thousands of hours as a kid programming computer games and 3-D graphics projects, but he never bothered to show many people his creations or to archive his old computer files. For him, the final products weren't nearly as gratifying as what he learned throughout the creative process.
Throughout my own childhood, my parents encouraged me to write and make doodles for fun, but I still spent most of my free time passively watching television and memorizing every catchy advertisement I saw. And I never showed my design sketches, cartoons, or writings to friends since I didn't want them to think I was super-weird. However, I still received the benefits of a producer mindset even though I didn't produce much: I felt the joy of being creative in small, private ways in addition to the normal forms of fun that all of my friends experienced.
You can't force your kids to become producers in areas that interest you, for two main reasons: First, they might not like the same things that you like. And second, even if they had some inclination to like what you like, the fact that their parents are pressuring them to do something instantly makes it less appealing. (My friends who are computer programmers are especially susceptible to this pitfall. "I love programming, so I want to get my kids to love it too!")
Instead, a more practical strategy is to observe what your kids naturally like doing and then figure out ways to get those activities to involve producing rather than just consuming. For example, if your kids really enjoy reading novels, then encourage them to come up with their own derived (fan fiction) stories based within the worlds of those novels; that is, instead of being a passive consumer of fiction, strive to become an active producer. Or if your kids like playing board or card games, then encourage them to create their own variants of those games rather than accepting the default rules.
Modifying existing works—taking the constraints of an existing book, game, or activity, and then being creative within those constraints—is often the first step toward developing a producer mindset. It also teaches your kids that the things they buy aren't sacred—they can feel free to alter or remix them.
Caveats for parents
If your kid does adopt a producer mindset, then most likely what they produce won't be in areas that you're passionate about. But you should try to take some interest and encourage them to keep producing. Kids are great bullshit detectors, so you need to be genuinely curious about their pursuits and not merely humoring them. Exactly what they're producing isn't important; what's more important is the fact that they're getting into a habit of producing regularly.
What your kids produce won't be any good at first. Their drawings will probably look ugly, their music will sound atrocious, their home videos will be all jittery, and their creative writing projects will be filled with eye-rolling cliches. As a parent, it's up to you to strike a delicate balance between being encouraging and realistic. On one hand, it's unreasonable to hold your kids' personal creative projects up to adult standards. It takes many years to get good at any skill; we all start as beginners. But on the other hand, it's also unhealthy to unequivocally praise your kids' projects as being "THE BEST THING EVER!" when they're clearly not. Perhaps one realistic approach is to casually encourage your kids' hobbies but to make it clear that they won't ever get good unless they buckle down and practice feverishly, perhaps also taking lessons from expert mentors.
Another delicate balance is how much to involve yourself in your kids' personal creative projects. On one hand, they probably want you to take some level of interest, but on the other hand, if you get too actively involved (e.g., by pitching too many of your own ideas or, even worse, telling your friends about it), then they will probably recoil. In their eyes, anything that their parents like is probably lame.
Lastly, what your kids produce probably won't be directly useful for future jobs, but that's okay—they're still kids! I've heard sad stories of parents smacking down their kids' natural interests and telling them to instead focus more on schoolwork—"Stop wasting your time drawing and go study!!!" Sure, your kids should do reasonably well in school, but personal passion about their own projects is so rare that it's a shame to destroy that momentum just to get them to study a bit more.
And here is where my views get more controversial: Reading and school learning are also forms of consumption. Yes, they're healthier than ad-ridden mass media, but they still involve passively absorbing, memorizing, and regurgitating information. I'd go as far to claim that if your kids have hobbies they're passionate about concentrating on for long periods of time, then that's better preparation for being a happy and productive adult than studying more and possibly getting better grades. In today's competitive job market, getting good grades and attending a well-known college is nowhere near sufficient for getting a truly fulfilling job. Instead, being able to concentrate intensely on developing deep expertise is one path to finding a fulfilling job, and being a producer as a kid is one way to prepare for such training.
The Easy Way Out
My (unsubstantiated) hunch is that the easiest way to raise producer kids is if you're a producer yourself and can naturally foster that sort of environment at home. If you simply show the joy that you get from being a producer for its own sake—whether it's fabricating parts in your garage metal shop or writing new posts on your culinary blog—then your kids might subconsciously learn from the example you set. Even though they're probably not interested in the same hobbies that you are, at least they see that their parents spend free time creating something new rather than just passively consuming. In contrast, if your kids see their parents consuming potato chips on the couch with mouths agape while watching television every night, then that becomes their default expectation for what home life looks like.
Again, I'm not advocating forcing your kids to become hardcore producers and cutting them off from mainstream consumption culture; that will probably lead to angst, alienation from their peers, and possible rebellion. All they need to do to get the benefits of a producer mindset is to produce a little bit more than their peers, which isn't hard since most of their peers produce almost nothing. In the end, the most you can probably accomplish is to give them small nudges toward actively engaging with their surroundings; it's ultimately up to them to adopt a producer mindset for their own sake, not for yours.
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Last modified: 2012-09-16