What does it take to inspire, raise, and nurture young Makers? Do they need lots of
“stuff” lying around the house to create with? Do they need Internet access to connect with and learn from
other makers? Do they need parents
who respect and protect their need to make? “All of the above,” was the conclusion of a panel of Maker Moms and Dads I had the pleasure of participating in at last week’s San Mateo Maker Faire.
The panel included the parents of some pretty high profile young Makers including James Todd (aka TechNinja and dad to Super Awesome Sylvia) and Julie Hudy (mom to Joey Hudy). Both of these young Makers have been recognized widely as inspirational role models and even have gone to meet the President at the White House! The panel also included Ethan Etnyre and Lenore Edman, whose wisdom about raising Makers made the talk complete. In addition to Maker parents on the panel, the audience was full of parents whose young Makers were either hanging around the stage or off making things at other parts of the Maker Faire. From these parents we heard themes we recognized, mixtures of pride and frustration: “Where do you put all the stuff they collect?” “All three of my kids are constantly taking things apart all over the house.” “How do we help them move from playing with Making to doing serious projects?” “What about all the unfinished projects?”
The parent panel was surprisingly united on several points. “Makers gotta make, so if you can’t get their stuff (maker treasure) under control just find a way to live with it.” “Kudos for letting your kids disassemble, repurpose, void warranties, and explore fearlessly!” “Allow projects to take time and make room for play and exploration–even if it means lots of projects are in progress at once (if you aren’t going to work on it in the next six months maybe it can hang out in the back of the closet for now.)”
But there were some very interesting points where the different experiences of different panelists came into focus. While all of our young makers were intensely intrinsically driven to be Makers, we ourselves had different levels of interest and background in the kinds of making our kids loved, as well as kids of a wide range of ages (9 to 18 years old). This led to differences in how we, as parents, support or participate in our kids’ making. Philosophically, there was a rough consensus that Making belongs to the kids--that it should be driven by their own interests, ideas, execution, learning from the Internet community, and so on--as opposed to driven by parents in a school-like way leading the kids from project to project, building their skills.
Which brings me to the advantage held by nongeek parents.
For non-geek parents this supportive (vs. leading) role is perhaps more natural. Ethan and Julie shared their pride and satisfaction in how their kids used outside resources to learn and grow their skills and followed their curiosity and internal need to make. Julie talked about how proud and supportive she was of Joey, but that all the decisions about his projects and his now high profile activities are his own. Ethan talked about having no background in his son’s interests and how he might try to come up to speed to help when needed, but that largely his son learned from the Internet community. These are beautiful examples of parents who create environments where their kids’ intrinsic motivations are able to fully develop and drive the work they are passionate about.
For those of us who are geek parents, we may need to be a bit more careful. How easy is it to want our kids to love what we love? How hard is it to hold off on suggestions to make projects “better” when we have the experience to see the dead ends our kids are heading for? How easy is it to nag about getting stuff done in time for hard deadlines like Maker Faire? Even if we understand how interfering in even minor ways closes off possibilities in a child’s mind and takes a bit of the oxygen away for a flourishing intrinsically motivated passion?
All of us geek parents on the panel talked about having to be so mindful of letting the kids drive and decide, even though they are in many ways playing in our wheelhouse (though fortunately they are also doing lots of things where we have to learn right along with them.) Lenore consciously supported her son in dropping Making in favor of marching band for several years. James consciously holds back from giving Sylvia suggestions for the projects in her show, even as he balances his job as her producer. And I sat down with my daughter for a heart-to-heart about not being willing to nag her about schedules when she is working on her long-term ambitious projects--after which she “hired” me to be her project manager with input to schedules but no creative control.
After hearing the combined wisdom of this group of maker parents, my advice for parenting passionate, driven young makers comes down to this, “Let them go their own way, support the accumulation of maker treasure, and help (only) when asked (and provide the minimum amount of help needed to make it possible for them to take that next step.)”
But what about nurturing the Maker in every child, even those who have not seized on making as their one true passion? I would suggest doing projects together just as you finger painted with them when they were babies and add in bits of DIY and tech for fun. Add lights or sounds to that painting with LED’s and conductive tape. Make a bird feeder with mechanically distributed portions. Grow your own food in a closet. Make it all about the experience together and not the result. And as your ambitions grow, find the maker spaces and experts in your community to help you make the things you didn’t know you could. But mostly take full advantage of not being an expert, not being an uber-geek, not being a know-it-all to follow your child instead of leading.