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Teaching Your Children to Innovate

The ability to create ideas systematically may be your child's most important.

Parents teach their children morals, etiquette, religion, sports, cooking, riding a bicycle, reading, writing, math, discipline, safety, driving a car...the list goes on and on. What if you could teach your child the life-long ability to innovate? What a gift indeed. Can children learn systematic creativity at such an early age? Absolutely.

When I taught Systematic Inventive Thinking to children in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, I was surprised and a bit unnerved how well they did. After learning the five techniques of SIT, each child completed a "final exam" by innovating a new-to-the-world product using one of the techniques in just 30 minutes!

I have since taught the techniques to 3rd and 4th graders, an experience described in the Epilogue of our new book, Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results (Simon & Schuster, June 2013).

Here are some pointers for teaching your children to innovate:

1. Equate innovation to other skills-based activities. Innovating takes skill just like sports or dancing. Don't let your children think innovation is some special, innate talent that only certain kids have. This creates an artificial barrier, one that I see too often in the corporate environment, and it prevents people from trying to be innovative. Innovating is a skill, and it can be learned by anyone, even those who are not creative in the traditional sense.

2. De-emphasize patents. For some reason, kids are fascinated with patents. They tend to see patents as the ultimate reward of innovation. Patents do not equate to successful innovation; rather, they equate to getting legal status regarding an invention. If a child invents something that has already been invented, this is a success. In fact, it is a huge success because it shows an ability to create novel ideas that have a track record of success. Be sure to reward your child if they invent something that exists. Send the message: if you can invent something that is already shown to be successful, you can definitely be the first to invent something new and useful.

3. Apply innovation across a variety of situations. It is not just for inventing new products. Teach you children to apply innovation methods to things like writing a poem, doing school work, or getting dressed in the morning. Have them invent a new way to clean their room or play with a toy. Help them equate innovation with creating novelty in the everyday things. Make innovation a routine way to tackle new situations.

4. Distinguish between innovation skills and problem solving skills. Both are useful, but are often confused. They are related, but different. Help them see problem solving as what to use when the problem is very well defined and must be solved. Help them see innovating as the set of tools to use when new approaches are needed for an existing task. Example: Innovate a new way to clean their room, but problem-solve when they want to avoid having to do it.

5. Teach "ambidextrous" innovation. Help them understand the two directions of innovation: Problem-to-Solution and Solution-to-Problem. Example: if the kitchen toaster burns the bread every morning, and they see a novel way to fix it, that is Problem-to-Solution. Other the other hand, if they imagine the toaster is like a TV that is "on demand," then make the connection that this would help mom get toast ready precisely when everything else is ready, that is Solution-to-Problem innovation.

6. Set an example. Parents struggle teaching children anything unless the parents demonstrate those skills themselves. Whether it is table manners, proper grammar, or how to treat other people, parents must "walk the talk." Innovation is no different. Let children see how you and others, especially other children, use innovation methods to do cool, fun, and important things.

I encourage all parents to add creativity to the list of life's skills they teach their children.

Copyright 2013 Drew Boyd