On Unicorns: Creatives versus Conformists

For the tweens who create more often than they conform – always be yourself

I asked this question of a younger tween in my life, the daughter of a dear friend. Let’s keep her anonymous and call today’s tween Nell. Here’s my question:

Are there more unicorns in England or Arabia? 

Here’s her answer:

There are more unicorns in Arabia than in England because in Arabia there is more sunshine. Unicorns need sunshine to activate their magic dust. So more of them live in Arabia. 

I loved Nell’s answer because, on a grey January day when the leaden sky is pressing down on the soul and the spirit is washed out like a drab watercolour of the same dull horizon, it’s being around children, and engaging with the logic of childhood, that stimulates my soul once more.

It was after school, and between slurps of hot chocolate through a metal eco-straw that made her lips tingle and her eyes grow round, Nola showing me the plentiful, post-Christmas unicorn stationary additions to her unicorn pencil case and the rainbow rays of sequins on Unicornia, her favourite cuddly unicorn, lit up the January afternoon. It was Unicorn-tastic. 

Her answer reminded me of these lines, repeated but not, I think, originally created by, Squirrel Nutkin: 

The man in the wilderness said to me,

How many strawberries grow in the sea?

I answered him, as I thought good,

As many red herrings as grow in the wood. 

Squirrell Nutkin has good company on the bookshelves in Nancy’s bedroom: for me, Lewis Carroll’s logic in Alice in Wonderland is gloriously peculiar to itself. Alice is an inquisitive tween, confident of herself in the world around her which is, still, the world of childhood, with childlike controls still in place. I love this example of Alice’s way of thinking: 

“[Y]ou should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!”

As I celebrate Nell’s conviction about unicorns, Squirrel Nutkin’s definitions about nature and Alice’s powers of argument, I find myself asking why it seems that these  childhood perceptions are recognised as childish by a society that promotes reason and logic as the acceptable indicators of adulthood.  As an Oxford University mathematician, Lewis Carroll (or, more properly, Charles Dodgson) may have found more sympathy for children who see the world in their own way than an average set of school reports in mainstream curriculum subjects usually finds. 

As a challenge to such average sets of average school reports written for children who are anything but average, here’s my case for originality. It is widely recognised by psychologists, first developed as a theory in the 1970s by Paul Costa and Robert McRae, that there are five key traits in each individual’s personality, one of which is Openness to Experience. More recent research by Anna Antorini at the University of Melbourne is reported by Alice Klein in a New Scientist article, Creative people physically see and process the world differently:

“Openness to experience is one of the ‘big five’ traits often used to describe personality. It is characterised by curiosity, creativity and an interest in exploring new things. Open people tend to do well at tasks that test our ability to come up with creative ideas, such as imagining new uses for everyday objects like bricks, mugs or table tennis balls.” (Alice Klein, 13 April 2017, New Scientist). 

I love spending time with Nell – she is funny and quirky and affectionate, she is endlessly interesting and in creative play she is unstoppable. I see in her creativity and her inventiveness a growth mindset that is much more pronounced than in more literal, rational tweens, those girls of the same age who are praised for their maturity and for their prowess in areas of sport and school work where following rules and learning to conform to norms earns them merit. 

Creativity encourages a growth mindset, an ability to problem solve. It promotes self worth in that it recognises that individual flights of imagination are precious. Imaginary play now will lead to innovation in the future. In a technological age where literacy and numeracy will be delegated to the IT department, which will in turn fuel the development of Artificial Intelligence, space travel, cyber reality et al, perhaps we should be training all our children to follow Nell’s lead, to develop openness in order to explore the ever-accelerating development of all that is, as yet, unnamed and unimaginable in our children’s futures. Maybe we need to train children to be open to experience as a matter of priority. 

Perhaps what defines the tween from the younger child is the fading away of childhood logic for something more geared up to finding right answers, applying fact to justify logic, checking with google for the reassurance that they are not alone in their answer. Maybe, as our children pick up deodorants and razors, they put down Squirrel Nutkin as a pest and Alice’s experiences as a dream. Maybe what they lose when they do so is the rainbow reflected in their childhood’s eyes. 

Keep the twinkle in your eye, Nell. Keep your sparkle. Brighten grey days as you grow up. And always be yourself. 

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