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
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT