making things at home
Once I sat down with a pencil, paper, and school calendar, and worked how many days my children weren’t at school, I knew I had to do something. School camp was out, because I wanted my children to be able to relax and hang out at home. Full-time childcare was out, because I never earned enough to cover it.
Instead I took a deep breath and told myself that being at home was an opportunity for us all to be creative. This was my small seed. I figured that if they had things they genuinely enjoyed doing, and felt real pride and interest in, this would be good for us all. I wouldn’t be obliged to entertain and stimulate them, and they wouldn’t have to moon about the house wondering what to do next.
The seed, my hunch, was incredibly simple. What if, instead of feeling trapped at home with my children, the glum feminist fable, I found genuine opportunity there? What if being at home with Alex and Emma gave me a chance to do things that, previously, I hadn’t given myself imaginative permission to do? What if they grew up alongside a mother for whom it was completely normal to draw and craft and generally make things at home? Wouldn’t this make us free in some deep sense? We’d still need the world and other people, of course. But we wouldn’t need external proof that our day had been worthwhile. Making things at home would be our own reward.
It all began in the kitchen, when Alex and Emma hung around while I cooked. I wasn’t playing with them, nor was about to. My attention wasn’t on them. And yet I sensed it was important for them that I was around. Instead of looking beseechingly at me with a ‘What shall I do now?’ look, Alex would pick up whatever was to hand, start playing with it, and then wander off in search of that vital thing he needed to make his game more interesting. Emma, on the other hand, might start a drawing, lose herself in it for five minutes, only to then tear it up and get cross. However if I didn’t come to her aid – by being too busy or thinking better of it – she might distract herself. She might pick up her ripped up drawing and start making a house for her pencil sharpener with paper and sticky tape – as if the pencil sharpener’s existence depended on it having such a home.
Every time they turned the ‘What shall I do now?’ question round – by asking themselves rather than me what they should do next – they became just a tiny bit stronger. And there was another thing – easier to describe the effect of than the process of. Immersed in things they liked doing, they got a clearer sense of who they were. Some sort of release occurred that, over time, helped shaped their personality. If I have taught my children anything, I hope it’s that something good often comes out of doing nothing.
Giving Alex and Emma unmapped time has been just as important, for me, as making sure they eat and sleep well. And, as they’ve grown up, I’ve protected it like a mother tiger. Loose time, down time, unstructured time. This, I tell them, in as close to bossy as I get, is what weekends are for. Finding something to do, when nothing is on offer, is, I believe, a vital life skill. And like any skill, it requires practice.
It’s not just that being able to find things to do liberates my children from me. There’s also this other thing, gleaned from my psychotherapy days. Which is that when it looks like they’re not doing much, they’re actually digesting everything that happens in the busier parts of their lives – much like dreaming at night. Simple really. And yet, like many simple things, easily overlooked.
It was my son Alex who taught me, in so many ways, about hobbies. His passion for making things, which grew out of his love of playing with toys, started young. As for many small boys, it started with trains. For a long time it was his passion for trains that framed his interest in the world. As he grew up it wasn’t just trains that absorbed him, it was the whole world of trains. It was books from the transport section of the library, Thomas the Tank Engine videos, and big pencil drawings of fantasy track layouts. Not least it was the catastrophic crashes that he dreamed up for his wooden engines. Everything that related to trains was of interest to him (one of the biggest mysteries he encountered, on growing up, was the fact that this passion wasn’t universally shared).
There was no mystery about getting my children to be creative. The only real challenge has been keeping them that way. What they needed in order to be creative was, then, more straightforward than what they’ve needed to keep them that way. Top of the list they needed quality materials with which to work – because making things is a kind of work and it’s important to have materials that are a joy to use. Secondly they needed the right sort of surroundings – warm and inviting but not too set up or school-like. Thirdly they needed to feel relaxed and unhurried – rather than feeling that a further commitment was about to force them to break off. Fourthly they needed the right kind of encouragement, helpful but not too helpful, available but not hovering. And lastly once they’ve done, they needed to feel pleased with their efforts, that their work was worthwhile.
If all these needs are satisfied, nearly every child will be creative. Not necessarily in the way we’d like them to be creative, but creative in their own way. I always know when my daughter is being creative, because she goes quiet and her tongue breaks through her lips.