The Creative Inner Child?

Pablo Picasso once quipped that “Every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.”[i]  In this often-quoted slogan, Picasso neatly summarized idealized views of the universally creative child and the uncreative adult. In a similar fashion he would later write that, “It takes a long time to become young.” What is one to make of such laments? Nostalgia over a lost youth? A yearning to escape a pressurized grown-up life?  Regardless of origins, it’s impossible to deny America’s ongoing infatuation with childhood creativity.

This fascination childhood artistry dates to the 1700s, corresponding to evolving views of children as “blank slates” (tabula rasa) better served by nurturance and education than by discipline alone. At the same time, Enlightenment debates over individualism and personal autonomy were bringing considerable anxiety to the era, evidenced in worries that self-interest would overwhelm moral sentiments.

This set the stage for the naturalism espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book Emile: Or, On Education, seeing an inherent “goodness” in children,  which becomes corrupted by adult desire and material want.[ii] With the 1800s, views of “human nature” gave ways to theories of evolution and behavioral adaptation –– owing in large part to the influence of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. While the resulting rationalism eventually would make education more formulaic, an artsy transcendentalism would counterbalance American culture with an advocacy for an “educated imagination.”[iii] The Romantic Era writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman advanced themes of emotion over reason and imagination over reality –– setting in place a tradition progressive of push-back against the instrumentalist ethos of science and industry.

In the 1920s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget began charting children’s “stages” of maturity, hence launching the modern field of child development.[iv] Piaget saw “realistic” rendering as a learned ability rather than a natural inclination. In one famous study, Piaget asked a group of four-year olds to draw familiar people or objects. He found that the images invariably had the same characteristics: drawn from memory rather than observation, exaggeration of certain salient features (faces, for example), and a disregard of perspective or scale. In other words, the images derived more from mental symbolism than they did conventional schema of visual representation. Piaget would note that at later ages children acquire the ability to “correct” their images to conform to normative depictions of reality. Later observations of so-called “feral” children (raised” in the wild without human contact) found that such children often didn’t speak or make pictures of any kind, further reinforcing the premise that language and “artistic” rendering were largely determined by culture.[v]

While Piaget concentrated on cognition and knowledge acquisition, one of his contemporaries, John Dewey, looked at motivation and communication. Dewey conceived what is now known as a “child-centered” approach to education, which saw a youngster’s psychic investment as a key factor in learning. This would inform Dewey’s views on aesthetics, notably his book Art and Experience, which advocated a process-oriented view of art-making.[vi]  Creativity was central to both thinkers as an expression of symbolic thinking (Piaget) and transformative imagination (Dewey), setting in place naturalist and progressive traditions that idealized children’s capacities for self-expression.  Over time, advocates for early childhood art instruction expanded the list of its presumed benefits: motor skills, language development, decision making, inventiveness, cultural awareness, among others.  Later studies found correlations between arts exposure and various kinds of intelligence. While arts groups would make much of research showing, for example, that playing a musical instrument helps with language acquisition –– such studies often have been small or their findings relatively weak, owing in part to the difficulty of defining variables (i.e., What constitutes music?).[vii]

The fields of psychoanalysis and child development had a lot to say about kid’s creativity. Beginning in the 1920s, Melanie Klein analyzed children through their imaginative activities. In her “object relations” theory, Klein speculated that as youngsters played with toys or arts materials they often mimicked important (typically parental) relationships. Watching children as they fantasized with dolls and animals, made pictures, or acted out roles, Kline saw youngsters expressing feelings of infantile dependence, love, and anxiety –– in effect, giving external form to feelings toward deeply valued figures (“internal objects”) in their lives.  From this, Klein advanced the concept of “projective identification” (also termed “projection”) through which internal objects are split off and attached another person, place, or thing –– commonly seen, for example, when an adult unconsciously sees a boss or teacher in a parental role. Klein also saw projective identification as a pivotal aspect of artistic sublimation, with creative work another means of externalizing the internal.[viii]

Pediatrician Donald Winnicott took theories of child development and creativity still further in his concept of “transitional objects,” which he introduced in 1953.[ix] Winnicott believed that as young children grow from a state of dependence to one of relative independence, they often imagine a symbolic substitute for the idealized “object” of the caregiver. Aside from providing a familiar comfort, the child’s teddy bear or blanket is the youngster’s first act of creative meaning-making. But as other theorists have pointed out, what gives this comfort object a unique significance is its transitional function –– as a bridge between child and external world, between what exists and what does not, between “reality” and “imagination.”[x]Winnicott said that the transitional object helped to open a “potential space” for both mother and child, a space of simultaneous connection and separation, “me” and “not-me,” knowing and unknowing –– and hence an arena of inquiry, exploration, and possibility. Winnicott would later generalize the concept of “transitional phenomena” and their ongoing importance throughout people’s lives. He said that the act of attaching deep significance to “objects” (whether symbolized in things, people, images, or ideas) was an underlying aspect of science, religion, and human culture itself.

Winnicott’s transitional object has continued to influence thinking about art and creativity. Bernard Stiegler would frame his discussion of sublimation in terms of transitional connections between internal states of mind with the outside world. [xi] To Stiegler, the infant gets an initial motivation for “living” through the early bond with its caregiver, usually the mother. Later the transitional object becomes a powerful bridge between the two, belonging to both but also to neither. As Stiegler wrote, the transitional object is “both an external object on which the mother and child are dependent (losing it is enough to make this clear) and in relation to which they are thus heteronomous; and an object that, not existing but consisting, provides (through this very consistence) sovereignty to both mother and child: their serenity, their trust in life, their feeling that life is worth living, their autonomy.”[xii]  Whether people realize it or not, their transitional phasing remains in memory and consciousness, its template reactivated later in life and recognized in the image of the child. Or in Stiegler’s words, “The transitional object is not only concern the child and the mother: it is also, as the first pharmakon, the origin of works of Art and, more generally of the life of the mind or spirit in all its forms, and thus of adult life as such.”[xiii]  Put in these terms, the transitional object is the origin of creativity.

It’s worth noting worth that object relations and transitional phenomena theory gained most of their public caché during post-World War II era, its well-known “baby-boom,” and a less well-known upsurge in the mental health field. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care sold over 50-million copies in its advocacy of engaged and nurturing parenting, which included a heavy dose of transitional object theory.[xiv]  Along with other child development figures of the era, Spock would literalize the transitional object as a comforting stand-in for the mother (or, more specifically, the breast).  Spock’s developmental and “permissive” methodologies put him at odds with proponents of traditional discipline and adult authority. But Spock’s message of loving parenting also proved a popular antidote in a culture awash with Cold War paranoia and nuclear fear.

The concept of “play” loomed large in the 1950s and 60s as an ideal for both children and adults. Theoretical work on imaginative play would continue, although the transitional space/object still remains a central premise today. Transitional phenomena fit within more generalized views of play as ways that children formulate or test ideas in the “safe” space of imitation, pretending, and so on. Following Klein and Winnicott, psychologists observed that this imitative behavior begins very early in life. An important stage in infant development is the reciprocal “mirroring” of the caregiver and child (exchanging smiles, noises, touches, etc.) as a pre-linguistic way.  Recent imaging science has found so-called “mirror neurons” that fire in the brain when animals act and then observe the same behavior in another. Such neurons play an important role in emotional recognition and the development of empathy.[xv] As children learn to interpret behavioral cues and feelings through play, their capacities grow for relationship formation, collaboration, and social life more generally.

But as Picasso aptly pointed out, the pathways of play get more complicated as one ages. Always active in the imagination, play is reduced to an aspect of mind for most adults, perhaps lingering in fantasy, but usually sublimated into occasional use. One “plays” a sport, in part, as a way of acting out primitive competitive urges, or performs in a “play” as a socially sanctioned form of pretending.  Anthropologist Gregory Bateson saw play as both a form of nascent creativity and a way for adults to test out ideas, especially in when they face grown-up dilemmas or what he called “double-bind” situations.[xvi] Basing his thinking on observations of children and primates, Bateson envisioned play as a meta-environment in which oppositions can be played out in hypothetical or alternative scenarios. Roles can be invented or reinvented. Or games can be devised with rational or even irrational rules. Bateson’s work on play became fertile ground for educational theorists, especially those studying play in learning environments. Even now, cultural theorists find Bateson’s work helpful in explaining why some adults cling to childish impulsivity and emotionalism.[xvii]

The ideal of the eternal inner child can be seen in the figure of Peter Pan and his mischievous ethos represented for over a century in stories and films.[xviii] First appearing in days of Piaget and Dewey, J.M. Barrie’s 1902 story about “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” was inspired by Barrie’s older brother David, who died at the age of 13, and was memorialized by the Barrie family as a “forever boy.”[xix] Stories of enduring childhood have long attracted grown up readers, and, it’s worth remembering that children’s literature usually is written by adults. Peter Pan lives on in social behaviors, too –– as famously seen in the life of Michael Jackson.  For at least three decades, the “Peter Pan Syndrome” has been used as a catch-all phrase for “man boys” who can’t give up their childish ways.[xx] None of this has been lost on the business world, in which adolescent-themed products keep appearing for what is termed the “Peter Pan Market.”[xxi] Seen this way, creative output of writers like Suzanne Collins, Bella Forest, Neil Gaiman, Veronica Roth, and J.K. Rowling only further encourages childhood regression, as Marvel superhero movies keep breaking box office records. Increasingly, stressed-out adult audiences are gobbling up stories about persecuted or damaged youth, who magically gain power to get romance, riches, or revenge. Is it any wonder that populist impulses of childish fantasy and wish-fulfillment abound in such a symbolic economy?

Not that the inner child needs metaphoric support. Today’s self-help industry leans heavily on youthful nostalgia, lost innocence, and a yearning for simple pleasures –– with the very phrase “inner child” becoming its own cliché. Of course, stereotypes sometimes faintly connect to reality, albeit in distorted or exaggerated ways. You certainly don’t need to explain this to merchandizers now cashing in on public demand to accept, awaken, discover, embrace, reclaim, recover, or rescue that little inner person you’ve lost. As Marketing Magazine put it, “Recalling a time of fewer responsibilities and a more carefree mindset, today’s adults are looking for escapism from the ever-connected working world.”[xxii] Marketing then enumerated, not only the exponential rise in adult-oriented products that directly evoke childhood (neon sports shoes, goofy action movies, grown-up theme parks, etc.), but also a rising tide of nostalgia-based “retro” items for baby boomers like Dannon “Natural is Back” Yogurt, “Vintage” Heinz Ketchup, “Original” Lucky Charms, and the McDonalds “Classic” menu.

It goes without saying that the return to childhood has paralleled a gigantic upsurge to marketing to children themselves. Early in the television age, advertisers recognized the potentials of children in household purchasing and began to target them as consuming subjects. And they were right. Today children under 14 spend $40-billion on toys, computer games, and clothing, while influencing a staggering $500-billion in family buying each year.[xxiii]This has led educators and consumer advocates to decry what Henry A. Giroux termed the “Disneyfication” of childhood in direct-marketing to kids, advertising in schools, entertainment product-placement, and a general encouragement of materialism.[xxiv] Titles say a lot in works like Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Daniel Thomas Cook’s The Commodification of Childhood, Peggy Orenstein’s, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Alvin Poussaint’s Captive Audience: Advertising Invades the Classroom, and Shirley Steinberg’s Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood.[xxv] Common among all of these has been a view of childhood as a concept changing over time. Once seen as a separate and protected developmental stage in life, childhood now seems a rehearsal for adulthood –– even as grown-ups increasingly travel backwards into youth.

Might there be a silver lining in all of this obsession with childhood?  Maybe so. Authors of the recent Lifelong Kindergarten assert that so-called “grown-up” values aren’t always so great –– and that a bit of youthful spirit “is exactly what’s needed to help people of all ages develop the creative capacities needed to thrive in todays’ rapidly changing society.”[xxvi]  Scholars looking that these trends have begun to see some positive themes besides a mere regression to childishness. As a demographic, behavioral psychologists say that kids behave differently than adults –– and not in ways you might expect. Obviously children are accustomed to dependency and the feelings of security that accompany it, especially when very young. But because of this, young children in particular also are less aggressive than grown-ups, according to researcher Fletcher Kenway.[xxvii]  Compared with adults, youngsters favor cooperation over competition when left to their own devices. Anyone who has watched parents screaming at a T-Ball or pee-wee soccer game will tell you that is isn’t the kids who so desperately need to “beat” the opposition.  Looking at the inner-child craze from the outside, it’s clearly doing something for people crushed by worries over finding and keeping a job, supporting a family, or otherwise surviving in today’s “Anxious America.” On balance, the inner child craze carries with it a resounding value that’s hard to deny: kindness. All of this complicates any analysis of child creativity enormously –– putting it on a feedback loop that both promotes children’s imagination on its own terms while also using creative products to promote childlike fantasy to adults. It’s little wonder that this causes mixed feelings.

[i] Pablo Picasso, as quoted in Otto Kroeger and David B. Goldstein, Creative You: Using Your Personality Type to Thrive (New York: Atria, 2013), p. xix.

[ii] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: Or. On Education (1763) trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979).

[iii] Northrup Frye, The Educated Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana, 1964).

[iv] Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child, Helen Weaver, trans. (New York: Basic Books, 1969).

[v] Nigel Spivey, “Child Art,” How Art made the World: A Journey through the Origins of Human Creativity (New York: Basic Books, 2005) p. 15.

[vi] John Dewey, Art and Experience (1934) (New York: Tarcher Perigree, 2005).

[vii] Anna Trafton, “Music in the Brain,” MIT News (Dec. 16, 2015) (accessed Sep. 5, 2017).

[viii] Rossella Valdre, On Sublimation: A Path to Desire, Theory, and Treatment (New York: Karmac Books, 2014) p. 32

[ix] Donald Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena––A Study of the First Not-Me Possession,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34 (1953) 89-97.

[x] What Makes Life Worth Living, p. p 1-3.

[xi] Bernard Stiegler, What Makes a Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology, trans. Daniel Ross (Malden, MA: Polity, 2010).

[xii] What Makes a Life Worth Living, p. 2-3.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Benjamin Spock, The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) 4th Edition (New York: Sloan and Pearce,1960).

[xv] Lea Winerman, “The Mind’s Mirror,” American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology  (Oct. 2005) (accessed Sep. 4, 2017).

[xvi] Gregory Bateson, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy, in Jerome S Bruner, Alison Jolly, and Kathy Sylvia, eds., Play: It’s Role in Development and Evolution (Hammondsport: Penguin, 1976) pp. 119-129.

[xviii] J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (New York: Millennium Fulcrum, 1991).

[xix] Andrew Birkin, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

[xx] Kristen Houghton, “Peter Pan Syndrome, (Nov. 10, 2011) (accessed Sep. 5, 2017).

[xxi] “Coloring Enters the ‘Peter Pan’ Market,” (Nov. 19, 2015) (accessed Sep 3, 2017).

[xxii] Shelby Ross, “Marketing to Your Consumer’s Inner Child,” Marketing Magazine (Feb. 23, 2016) (accessed Apr. 29, 2018).

[xxiii] “Marketing to Children Overview,” Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (Apr. 2018) (accessed Apr. 29, 2018).

[xxiv] Henry A. Giroux, The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).

[xxv] Benjamin Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York: Norton, 2007); Daniel Thomas Cook, The Commodification of Childhood; The Children’s Clothing Market and the Rise of the Child Consumer (Durham: Duke, 2004); Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (New York: Harper, 2012);  Alvin Poussaint, Captive Audience: Advertising Invades the Classroom (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2009); Shirley Steinberg, Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood, 3rd Edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2011).

[xxvi] Mitchell Resnick and Ken Robinson, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passions, Peers, and Play (Cambridge: MIT, 2017) p. 4.

[xxvii] Fletcher Kenway, “Consumer Attitudes and Behaviours: Marketing to the Inner Child,” Esomar World Research (Apr. 2016) (accessed Sep. 22, 2017).

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