How to raise self-disciplined and creative children?

What is the best way to raise children? Each generation, culture, group, and family has a different set of answers. One of the biggest issues parents have to balance: how to raise children that have both creativity and discipline. You are welcome to read more here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Creativity vs discipline misconceptions

Quite often people assume that creativity required freedom, while discipline is all about boundaries. Studies show that both assumptions are false.

Setting up limitations improves creativity. In some studies, MBA students were asked to make money using a very small budget vs a very big budget. The students with the large budget tried to invest in high-risk businesses and on average lost. The students with a small budget came up with creative ideas and made a lot of money.

Discipline requires freedom. If there is no freedom, a person will be looking for a moment when nobody is looking. With freedom, we are empowered and can self-impose the limitations for the greater good.


We are often said to set up the boundaries, yet people either assume we know how to do it or do not have good practical pieces of advice. The rules are quite simple:

  • Be clear about your boundaries. If you are not sure about your boundaries, do not expect other people to be.
  • Use core values. The boundaries we set should not be arbitrary, they should be based on clear and easy to explain core values.
  • Willingness to protect. You should be able to explain the boundaries and protect them as extension of your self-esteem.
  • Supported by authority. If you can get the support of authorities for your boundaries, they become stronger. Law, tradition, science… Take your pick.
  • Mutual respect. It is better if you are willing to respect the boundaries of other people, especially the same boundaries you want others to respect.
  • Consistency. You should not add or remove or even change boundaries if you can afford it. If the boundaries start to move around, that would be very confusing.

If you communicate your boundaries calmly and assertively with verbal language corresponding to body language, people will tend to respect them. In the same way, if you state them clearly to yourself, you will tend to respect them.

Anything within the boundaries is basically acceptable. It is best if

Negotiations and workarounds

Occasionally people will negotiate the boundaries and look for workarounds. If you set your own boundaries, you will still be likely to look for workarounds and loopholes. If we do not allow any negotiation, we might have issues handling everyday situations and miss opportunities. When we negotiate too much, the boundaries will dissolve. Since we base most boundaries on core values and authority, we could leverage these strengths for negotiation purposes. Something that goes with the spirit of the core value should be accepted. Even good arguments should not be accepted if they go against the core values.

Not all the negotiations involve core values. When core values are not involved, it is OK to negotiate.

I believe that there are always many alternatives. Insisting on just one way of doing things is counterproductive. Through negotiation, brainstorming and other forms of creativity we discover the alternative ways that may help us do things better.

Poor and rich upbringing

People that are poor and do not have adequate means and educations, often cannot afford alternatives. Some argue, those who are focused on survival cannot afford the luxury of abstract argumentation and search for alternatives. It is easier to control people that are obedient. For parents, it is easier to control obedient children. If something goes wrong, the poor do not have resources to fix the issue: they do not get adequate medical help, legal representation, and financial reserves. Thus, in poor families, obedience is practiced on a regular basis. Poor people are also teaching their children to be happy with what they have. Of cause, there are many exceptions, and my outlines are just a statistical inclination.

In educated middle-class families, there are enough means to make independent decisions and take care of people who make mistakes. Social mobility is highly appreciated. Self-discipline and creativity are critical for social mobility. People are taught to weigh alternative, pursue their dream, and enforce self-imposed boundaries that improve productivity and success rates.

Vey rich people go further in self-imposing boundaries and responsibility, to the level where freedom and creativity start to disappear. The reason is simple: for the very rich social mobility is a risk, much more than an opportunity. There are simply too many risks to behave otherwise.

Thus the middle class usually provides the best upbringing. Most scholars, entrepreneurs, artists, sportsmen, and engineers come from the middle class.

General and specific curiosity

We prefer to make sure that everything within the boundaries is a fair game. The creativity is fueled by two types of curiosity. The specific curiosity makes us explore subjects within our areas of expertise, improve in our work and the things we usually do. The general curiosity addresses everything else. Many big discoveries are made by people who change their areas of expertise and bring insights from all kinds of activities. The general curiosity makes us play, read books, and do stuff that does not deal with survival or simple joys the life offers. We take chances and waste time and effort for a faint hope that one day all the waste will pay off in a form of some great decision or great discovery that nobody else could do. Occasionally, this hope pays off. The successful scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists fail many times before they learn to succeed.

We would like to think that the games we play are not a huge waste have a direct effect on our ability to solve certain tasks. There are no clear pieces of evidence one way or another. In small scale experiments, learning chess did not improve the mathematical skills or problem-solving abilities, but playing video games improve coordination and response time and music improved memory. Some games help in some ways, but since each of the complex tasks we do involves multiple skills, the experiments are not entirely trustworthy.

It is a common understanding that in each task we need to open up and explore options for a while, but then we need to converge and focus on the most promising option. The people who have low general curiosity, and who learned obedience as children, tend to “box up” their creativity too early, without properly examining the available options.

Hypersensitivity and narcissism

It is equally important to be able to take the arrows of criticism and stay empathic. We work with people and in teams, and proper teamwork cannot be handled by people who are hypersensitive or narcissistic. Strangely, the leaders tend to score high in dark triad of Machiavellianism (a manipulative attitude), narcissism (excessive self-love), and psychopathy (lack of empathy). But so score the bottom-feeders of our society: criminals, loners, drifters and people unable to achieve high social status. Many of our leaders are not afraid to take chances and prefer criminal behavior to admit failure and cutting losses. They are much more corrupt than the middle class.

We would probably prefer our children to be happy, healthy, with a steady job and strong family ties, socially integrated and loved, than overachievers with strong psychological issues. If the children are not allowed to make mistakes, they will either become oblivious to these mistakes or will internalize the criticism.

Admitting mistakes,  learning from mistakes and empathy to those who make mistakes reduce the chances of both hypersensitivity and narcissism.

Practical steps

So, as parents, how are we supposed to bring up creative and self-disciplined children. I will provide simple guidelines:

  • Put clear boundaries based on core values and authorities.
  • Negotiate limitations, but not the core values.
  • Encourage games and curiosity within the boundaries.
  • Focus on self-discipline rather than obedience.
  • Allow them to make mistakes and be empathic to these mistakes.

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