Skip to main content

How to raise a grounded, creative child

By Nancy Carlsson-Paige
January 30, 2014 -- Updated 1224 GMT (2024 HKT)
Matt Damon, right, at 5, and Kyle Damon, 8, listen to their mother Nancy Carlsson-Paige reading Beatrix Potter in 1975.
Matt Damon, right, at 5, and Kyle Damon, 8, listen to their mother Nancy Carlsson-Paige reading Beatrix Potter in 1975.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Matt Damon's mom, is often asked how she raised her children
  • She says kids get a a solid footing in life with lots of child-centered play in the early years
  • Parents can give children inner strength; she says. Tough punishment instills fear
  • Carlsson-Paige: Schools must offer children arts, drama -- activities that can't be tested

Editor's note: Nancy Carlsson-Paige is professor emerita of early childhood education at Lesley University in Massachusetts. Her most recent book is called "Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids."

(CNN) -- People often ask me, especially after another young celebrity takes a fall, "How did you raise two talented artists, both wonderful fathers, who both do such good work in the world?" (One of my sons is the actor Matt Damon, the other, Kyle, is a sculptor). So many young stars seem to struggle and stumble under the pressure of their fame. Why do some handle it well while others go off the rails?

There's no simple answer to this question. A lot happens in our children's lives that we parents can't control. From the beginning, children come to us with different personalities and temperaments; they are born into different cultures and economic circumstances. But we parents are the most important influence in their early lives, and what we do affects how our kids learn to handle the stresses life brings, whatever paths their lives take.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige
Nancy Carlsson-Paige

One dimension of healthy childhood that gives kids a solid footing in life is having lots of child-centered play throughout the early years and even into grade school. Play is the most important vehicle children have for coping with life and making sense of it.

Matt played pretend games for hours every day for many years -- making up stories, taking on roles and re-working his experiences in creative ways. Not only did all this play help build a strong sense of inner security in Matt, it also built up his capacity to imagine, create and invent ideas.

I believe these years of child-centered play helped Matt become the actor and grounded person he is today. It is of great concern to me that there is less play in children's lives today than a generation ago. The hours spent in front of screens have replaced playtime outside school, and too much focus on academics and testing has eroded playtime inside schools.

I believe that these years of child-centered play helped Matt become the actor and grounded person he is today.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige

When kids are confused or scared or they don't understand things, they work it out in their play. Using their imagination, they rework things until they feel some sense of mastery. This is kids' ongoing way of coping with life and it is crucial for building inner resilience and security.

That inner strength and resilience begins to develop at birth. It is first felt as a sense of trust in others -- adults who respond to cries of hunger and who can provide a home, safety and health.

As time goes on, kids start to carry that security with them on the inside. Security will grow or weaken in childhood depending a lot on how we adults relate to our children in everyday interactions. When we are too heavy-handed with our authority, kids often feel insecure or fearful. When we punish them or use threats and timeouts or other coercive tactics, they might try to obey on the surface, but they aren't building the inner strength and confidence that will be their moral compass when we are not there.

Could Justin Bieber be deported?
Bynes' parents seek conservatorship

We don't really have to over-use our adult authority with children. We can work out most things with them -- listening to their feelings and needs and taking these into account as much as possible. When we listen to kids with our full attention and try to say back to them what we heard without judging it or giving our own opinion, they feel great trust in us and in themselves. And this kind of listening prevents many conflicts from escalating or from happening in the first place. Of course children need limits, but not the kind that are imposed by "Do as I say."

Recently I was walking on busy streets with my 5-year-old grandson Jake. He pulled his hand from mine. I asked, "You don't want to hold my hand?" "No," he said, "I want to walk by myself." I said, "How about this: On the sidewalk you walk alone and when we cross the street, you hold my hand, because there are so many cars zooming around." Jake nodded yes and took my hand when we got to the street. This simple example shows a way of being with children, of being on the same side with them, working things out with them -- something we can do almost all the time. It is a way of being that helps to strengthen children's inner security and confidence in their own ideas.

Schools are the other big influence in our children's lives. Children spend about half their waking hours in school and what happens there has a big part to play in the inner confidence and social responsibility they develop.

I sent my sons Kyle and Matt to a public high school where community participation, respect for differences, learning empathy and concern for others were part of daily school life. The school had an excellent drama program, another reason why I wanted to send Matt there.

All kids who wanted to participate in the school's stellar ensemble productions could. Matt wasn't a "star." He was on equal footing with all the other kids. Stardom can be confusing for a teen -- it's a time of figuring out who you are and how you fit into what suddenly seems like a much bigger world. Matt's high school drama experiences gave him a rock solid start in theater -- he worked hard at his craft and found delight and meaning in collaboration.

Matt Damon: Together we can solve the world water crisis

I believe that schools should be places not only for academic learning, but also where young people build confidence, a sense of self, and learn to become responsible citizens. It is one of the great tragedies of our day that our schools, excessively driven by data and standardized tests, have no time for activities that can't be tested. No time for the arts and play and the social and emotional learning that will help children handle what life has in store.

Although we parents can't control everything that happens in our kids' lives, we can do a lot to help them build inner security, confidence and a strong inner moral compass that will guide them through challenges they will face when we are no longer there. And our schools should build on this foundation. We should insist that our schools address not just academics, but the whole child -- so that all our children can become healthy and strong and enter adulthood as responsible and caring citizens.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nancy Carlsson-Paige.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT