Nurture or Nature: Are we born creative?

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JeansPics_06-2011_Pic1078 Okay friends. Come in and have a seat. I'm passing a plate of brownies again (do you like yours fudgy? these are fudgy). I also have a big bowl of fresh cherries. Mmm. Oh, and while we're at it, we'll just pretend I have air conditioning and that it's nice and cool in here. We're going to catch up a bit first (how've you been doing?) and then dive into another discussion about creativity (here's the first one, in case you missed it). Because I have another quote that I'd like to ponder and discuss with you.

Creativity is a characteristic given to all human beings at birth. – Abraham Maslow

What do you think? True or false? Is our creativity more about the genes we were born with or more about the environment in which we are raised? Or some of both?

I'll go first, but I'm not going to pretend I have all the answers. I may change what I think after hearing what all of you have to say.

I think it's true that everyone is born with the potential to be creative. I think it's part of being human. But I also think that creativity is a delicate flame that needs to be nurtured and fanned in order for it to grow and be realized. So my answer is nature and nurture.

This is something I think about a lot (and one of the reasons I do a lot of what I do).


When you read about the upbringings of creative people, of artists and writers and musicians, you see some who were raised in incredibly creative environments. Picasso was especially encouraged by his father, also an artist, from a young age. His father provided art materials and guidance and praise. And Mozart’s story is legendary for the encouragement and attention his father gave his musical education from a very young age. (For the sake of simplicity I'm keeping this list to those who are creative in the arts even though I believe that people can be creative in any number of areas.)

BUT, you also see artists and other people who are creative despite their upbringing—despite all odds, sometimes. Frida Kahlo spent her childhood (and lifetime) in pain due to polio and later a serious accident. Andy Warhol’s childhood was plagued by poverty, shyness, and childhood illness. Michael Jackson was physically and emotionally abused as a child. I'm sure the list could go on and on.

So I have to conclude that it's not just environment. That creativity is inherent and can survive through adversity. Maybe it doesn't always, but it can. Or maybe it's that creativity can be jumpstarted by adversity as well as by the gentle encouragement of a nurturing, creative environment. I think it shows how resilient people are, and how resilient and universal the creative urge is. It’s the urge to live, really—the urge to be. And I think that creativity can be healing as well.

Okay, your turn. Are we born creative or raised creative? Answer from personal experience, from instinct, from reading, whatever…

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  1. says

    I think that we are born creative, but some people have that creativity stifled and smothered by parents or educators who put more emphasis on conformity, uniformity, tidiness and “the right answer” than on process, imagination and fun. This is based a bit on experience, but mainly instinct.

  2. says

    I think that everyone is born with some creative ability, but how it manifests itself in a given individual has a lot to do with how someone is raised, their temperament, the materials they are exposed to, etc… I can’t deny that my desire to play with fabric has something to do with the fact that three generations of my family preceded me in their fascination with this medium. As a little kid I played with my mom’s fabric stash (as opposed to her acrylic paints, or clay).

  3. says

    Hi!, I work with 3 and 4 yr old children in kindergarten (just for some background ;)
    I think its both nature and nurture, and in different amounts for each individual. We live a community of hard working orchardists and artists, and if you didnt know whos kids were whos, you wouldnt be able to tell. Some children see art all the time, they dont want to do it at kinder! they want something new to explore! Some children don’t have to chance to explore paint and craft at home so paint a million paintings when they come to kinder. BUT some art family kids do love painting etc, some labourer familys children won’t touch it, girls or boys, it doesnt matter, it seems random and personality driven. Consider some children are stubborn while some can be guided into trying new activities or revisiting old ones…..I dont think there is an answer at all :)

  4. says

    Interesting ponderance and something I, too, consider quite a bit with my own little ones. It’s fascinating (and sometimes frightful) to think of how much of an impact the surroundings and the parenting we expose our children to shapes who they are and who they will become. So nature or nurture? I agree it’s both. And what you do with them both.

  5. says

    Both, and financial backing certainly doesn’t hurt. (Think of how Van Gogh, for instance, was supported his entire life by his father and brother.) My instinct (and some experience) wants to say that it’s easier to overcome no support–so, a neutral attitude towards creativity, neither encouragement nor discouragement–than it is to overcome outright discouragement. I wish I’d majored in art, instead of simply minoring in it during my second crack at a bachelor’s in my 20s. But I was actively discouraged from taking art in high school, and that erodes your confidence as much as you try not to let it.
    Also, one of my children has seen himself as an artist for quite a while now. Another, not so much. A lot of what I do with them is just as much so that my older son recognizes the ways in which he’s creative and artistic as it is to support my younger son’s need to create. Too many of us are put in our box (“the creative one,” “the kid who likes science,” “the reader”) way too early–it’s the responsibility of parents and educators to make sure that children don’t get boxed in.

  6. Carol says

    At conception we are wired and are creative…and upon death we remain creative.
    One must first define being creative…is creativity bound to arts and crafts? what about cooking? manufactoring? gardening? science experiments… the list is endless and encompasses every area of life known to man. To me being creative is the ability to see what is physically before my eyes, or to hear a sound, to touch,to taste, basically engage our senses, then with that knowledge, question posibilities, play the ‘what if’ game, change components, experiment, and suddenly as quicikly as the thought occurred, there becomes a newly created product.I have this battle constantly with one of my best friends…she’s “all math” can’t make anything or so she would have you believe. YET, she gets dressed every morning creating outfits that are stunning, designs clothing for her grandaughters in her head and begs me to ‘make’ them, she cooks, writes compelling lessons….yes, she is creative!
    The trouble comes in classifying ‘being creative’…creativity by its very nature, can not be placed neatly in a box…just doesn’t happen….Please refer to, Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created… the world, universe, moon and stars, oceans, land, animals, fish, plants, trees, and man were created….now try putting all of that in one box! :)
    Now to me the question to ask, is everyone born artistic or is it something that is developed or squashed? “Artistic” to me is an area of the brain to be developed, we all have this ‘zone’ yet for reasons unknown it may or may not develop to its potential…and that is okay….another area of equal importance is developed most likely directed by parents.
    Obviously I have thought about this a bit…when in college I was working on 6 majors. My parents and one of the deans freaked out…”you can’t study that many areas…you have to work on one or two….no one has 6 majors…”.to the point I had enough and dropped out of college. My majors: biology, art, american literature, american history, music, archeology…these were not all of my interests, trust me there were others… :)I returned to college a year later, I checked my transcript and completed only one major, the one with the most credits…art. The funny thing, before I could be readmitted the dean required me to take an assessment to determine the field I should study…..(I had the last laugh) the assessment revealed I had 6 areas all equally as strong.
    Why the above…the bottom line, the human brain is marvelous when we as humans allow the brain to function and not force it into a known mold easily filed into neat categories….creativity is like that…
    Thanks for the chat and yummy fudgey brownies…recipe please!

  7. says

    I believe that everyone is born with it, and how much it is shown to the world is directly related to their confidence level and lack of inhibition. Being around creative grown-ups (can we high-5 now?) And watching how their creativity works into their everyday lives sets an examples that your new thoughts have value and creative thought is valued.

  8. says

    I think all kids are born creative, but I agree that it can be stifled by parents, carers or even teachers, often without their realising. I believe that it’s complicated even more by the fact that we often have a limited view of what creativity is. Yes, it can be art or music or story telling which is easily identified and nurtured, but a child’s creativity could be in design (e.g. creating Lego vehicles or towers), problem solving (What happens when I do this? If I do this instead…) or imagination (those shadows on the wall look like scary monsters). These can easily be mistaken for getting into things or pulling them apart, disobedience, being distracted or hypersensitivity in children – all things that are normally discouraged.
    Every day I am challenged by my little one (who is now 5). I am having to constantly look at the outward signs of unacceptable behaviour for an underlying cause. Only because I recognise those things in my young self (who later became a designer, entrepreneur and blogger), can I connect with the creative problem solver, explorer, designer, daydreamer and story teller within him. Those fears are from his active imagination. The distraction is because something interesting to explore or learn about demands attention. I am by no means a perfect parent, and it is an exhausting process trying to keep on top of his mind as well as my own, but I feel I owe it to him to nurture all the creative power within him until he can learn to channel it himself. As someone who took nearly 40 years to properly channel my own creative talents, I am like any other other parent… I only want to spare him from the pain of my own experience and help him reach his full potential.

  9. says

    Yay Jean for making us think. I love your posts that get me ruminating about an idea or project. I agree with you, though like you I keep an open mind in case anyone might be able to change it. I think people are born creative but they can also nurture that gift to strengthen it (practice makes perfect). You posted a quote, something about “The more you use your creativity the more you have.” – true. We have lived thousands of years developing creative solutions to problems, in art and life (or in artful lives). I always wonder how the Native Americans living up in the freezing areas of Canada and Alaska figured out that you could use animal guts to make gutskin parkas, which by the way, are not only functional but also very beautiful. That took some serious creativity. Also, with regard to Picasso, one of the things I love about him is his relentless attempt to try new styles (process, process, process), even if they were seen as ridiculous at the time — Cubism and deconstructing shapes to their most simple forms was a very different idea at the time. Anyway, I’m going to think on this a bit more and them come back to read what everyone wrote. And, I take my brownies fudgy. :)

  10. tasha says

    Definitely both, nature and nurture befit us with this gift. Like the force to create life, have children, procreate, creativity, to me is along the same lines. Some prefer to create in other ways than have children, and some have only children and no other creativity, and some do both! I have learned after spending most of my 28 years of life, in pursuit of creativity and freedom for it. I was definitely born creative, but it has taken me to the present to truly understand it, and express it through art in ways that satisfy me. Having children has, more than anything, given me peace and understanding of my creativity. It was always my intention, that once I had children, they would be immersed in a creative environment, and given massive amounts of freedom to do as they wish with their creativity. I was “boxed in” as a child, and my creativity was very stifled. I never wanted that for my young. It makes me happier than anything else when I see their imaginations and creativity at work. When my five year old figures out solutions to real problems because his creativity allows him to see the big picture, rather than just minute details.

  11. [email protected] says

    My thoughts on this subject as many of you have shared is that human beings are born with creativity however, nurturing plays a big role in how an individual’s creativeness come about. All the tools are there but how can an individual put that tool to use? The instant a child is born, that child is nurture to believe in something, be something or maybe nothing at all.
    As a child growing up, my parents and many teachers have encouraged me to dream big because you can be anything or anyone you want to be. Be creative! How? Give a child a paint brush and tell that child to be creative. How will the child know what being creative is? Teach the child. Teach the child how to swirl the paint brush all around the paper with mixes of different paint colors. Everyone is born with creativity. Some are more exposed and others may need guidance.

  12. says

    I believe we are born creative. It seems to me that creativity is actually key to survival: if there is no shelter, how do we create it? If there is no water, how do we get liquid? Early man and pioneers were brilliantly creative.
    Perhaps the kind of creativity that turns us into artists, allows us to create art and music, to write beautifully comes from kinder times. Even so, anthropologists surmise that rhythm, music and dance have been part of our daily lives from earliest man.
    Cave paintings date back tens of thousands of years. The desire to communicate in artistic or creative ways is part of our DNA.
    That said, I don’t pass up any opportunity to encourage my son to draw or paint or sing or play music. As you said in your column, if you take that “delicate flame” and fan the flame with encouragement and opportunity then the child will grow up with the freedom to express themselves as creatively as they wish.
    It is why I subscribe to The Artful Parent. I think life is richer for the beauty we create and I hope to pass on that belief to my child.

  13. says

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the RSA Animate video about education reform? The lecturer talks about how our word “creativity” actually describes the outcome of divergent thinking, which is an ability children seem to be born with but often lose, demonstrably, as they grow up. (The RSA is sort of a policy think tank and doesn’t have any particular agenda, at least that I can tell; it’s based in the UK). I would say that supporting the creativity that all children are born with is vital to almost any work that a child will be drawn to do. I know computer programmers, engineers, scientists, and businesspeople who are highly creative in their field of work. So I would add that while creativity is a concept usually attached to the arts (fine art, literary art, music), I actually see it as more universal. Great discussions, thanks for starting them!

  14. Meredith says

    I believe it is both something we are born with as well as something that must be nurtured within us to reach its full potential. This is a neat video about the urge to create that is part of being human:
    I enjoy these posts about creativity, it’s interesting to think about and hear (or read) what others have to say. Thanks for all of your posts, I enjoy your blog.

  15. Sara McClelland says

    Both. I know this because neither of my parents are particularly artistic or creative (nor many of my extended family members in the older generations) but I went to school for fine arts and have 2 brothers in musical career paths. (The other brother used to build Legos like it was his job, and would come up with the most fantastic creations.) We had schools and programs in the community that encouraged music and creativity in arts production as well as thinking outside of the box, problem solving, and using your brain in ways that were new and interesting. Did we start off creative? I suppose. But the surrounding influences drove us to build upon it and pursue the paths we are now.

  16. says

    I agree that it is both nature and nurture, although I love your point about creativity coming out off adversity. I would like to add that I believe creativity is so deeply a part of what makes us human that even the most stunted, discouraged child/adult can be opened back up to their own creativity with a little encouragement and support.

  17. Trish Jackson says

    I love what Picasso said…”Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” I think it’s both nature and nurture. All of us have imagination and creativity, but it’s just like anything else that grows…if you don’t cultivate it and nurture it, it gets stifled and dies.

  18. says

    Just wanted to drop a line to tell you that I mentioned you on my recent blog post about mud. Thanks for all the continued inspiration!!! Gianne at

  19. says

    There is a comment that I picked up in grad school during a lecture that I paraphrase whenever I give a workshop (I wish I knew the source): Art and the desire to create among humans is universal; it exists across all cultures and has existed across time (e.g. early cave paintings as a form of communication). It is also something uniquely human that sets us apart from all other species (although there is evidence of creative thinking, as in problem solving, if not art, among some primates, and other intelligent species, no other species can take credit for intentional artistic endeavors from an asthetic standpoint, despite some cool looking abstract paintings by elephants, dogs, and dolphins)! :)
    So, yes, I believe all humans have the creative capacity, and that like most other commenters, experiences can encourage or discourage the blossoming of that creative spirit. However, I think it is also interesting to note, and honor, how the creative impulse manifests itself differently in each individual based on their inborn temperament. I know I have done my best to expose my two sons (3 years apart) equally to many creative, artsy experiences since their earliest days, but they could not be more different from one another in how they manifest their creativity. One would be hard-pressed to identify the creative streak in my very linear, information-seeking 12 year old; yet my 9 year old is the quintessential inventor, creator, imaginary-friend accompanied kid. And despite their many varied experiences with all things art since they were old enough to hold a marker or paintbrush, neither one is particularly inclined to draw or paint.
    Jean, I also think your point about those who are incredibly creative despite adversity speaks to the universal nature of art among humans, and is at the heart of why the field of art therapy exists. There is an innate drive for humans to move toward healing, and the arts is a primary way that we do that.
    I’m pretty sure at one point I read and article that pointed to genetic research that supported the premise that individuals are born with a genetic predisposition toward certain talents such as music and art. Sometimes there’s no squashing it, despite environment, and by the same token, those born with less “talent”, can cultivate it through practice and motivation, and sustained effort.
    LOVE the fudgy brownies. Thanks again for hosting! :)

  20. says

    To me, creativity is nature and nurture. It is not restricting in arts. It manifests itself in many forms in our ways of life from day to day problem solving, our relationships with others, to working on something with our hands. The light of creativity is always inside of us. The intensity depends on life situations and new opportunities that open the door to our inner needs to create and share. Nurture is a continue effort to learn and explore even when we are adult. We learn and inspire by masters, our family, and our peers. I hope this makes sense.

  21. says

    I agree — many children get labeled early on and those labels can be restrictive. I think it can be hard to avoid those labels sometimes. I know I need to work on that more, myself. I always hear myself talking about Maia as athletic or spirited or Daphne as easygoing.

  22. says

    Brownie recipe coming right up! :)
    I like what you said:
    “To me being creative is the ability to see what is physically before my eyes, or to hear a sound, to touch,to taste, basically engage our senses, then with that knowledge, question posibilities, play the ‘what if’ game, change components, experiment, and suddenly as quicikly as the thought occurred, there becomes a newly created product.”
    And I agree – your friend is definitely creative!

  23. says

    Oh my goodness, yes! (to: “I am by no means a perfect parent, and it is an exhausting process trying to keep on top of his mind as well as my own, but I feel I owe it to him to nurture all the creative power within him until he can learn to channel it himself.”)

  24. says

    Thanks for the video link. I’ll definitely check it out – perhaps during Daphne’s nap. I love Sir Ken Robinson and have read his book “The Element” and watched another of his online videos (TED talks).

  25. says

    I imagine that’s very true. – “the creative impulse manifests itself differently in each individual based on their inborn temperament.”
    I’d love to read that article about people being born with a genetic predisposition toward certain talents. I don’t suppose you remember where you saw it?

  26. says

    Wonderful discussion! Thank you for bringing it to us Jean. I run a home daycare and since my own creativity is somewhat limited but still wanting to be expressed, I come to your site often for ideas!

  27. lucille says

    I think we’re all born with the ability to be creative. I remember my high school art teacher explaining that a lot of it has to do with our brain development. the right side of the brain controls our creativity (art, music, etc….)I’m just not sure how that side gets developed if your not encouraged at a young age?

  28. says

    Wow, Jean, what a fascinating discussion! I agree with each comment in one way or another as wonderful points of view were offered!
    I am from an artsy, musical, reading family and ‘being productive and happy’ was an important unspoken message from my parents. So, it didn’t matter HOW creative we were, it mattered that we dabbled and clinked and tried things out. My six siblings and I have different interests & strengths now as adults in the creative category yet all of us still dabble and clink, and pass that message on to our children.
    As a constructivist early childhood educator, I celebrate children taking time to explore the classroom and engage in their own interests. With that said, sometimes it takes time for them to figure out – really – that they are allowed to make their own choices, experiment, and invent with any materials. All children become accustomed to our open-ended kind of work and choice making over time, yet I would say their “creativity” to Go For It, use diverse materials, to be loud, to Push The Envelope still varies a great deal (from my perspective of understanding 4s & 5s). So, it seems to me that Nature AND Nurture are both important, yet personality, comfort with risk taking, and curiosity come into play for each individual.
    I think the gift lies in the creative license to be honored for each child – what they each do with it is their own process, their own choice, in their own time.

  29. says

    My mom was an art major in college, so I grew up with her painting and sketching and going to art museums. When I was in high school, however, I decided I DID NOT want to be like my mom. I majored in chemistry then went to law school and other than a love of art museums, never tried anything creative for at least ten years. Then I had kids and I realized that I wanted them to be raised like I was. And then on a whim my husband bought me a DSLR for xmas, now I’m sort of a professional photographer. My mom likes to credit herself with the fact that I’m so creative now. But I often wonder if I would have been more creative my whole life if I didn’t feel like she was pushing it on me so hard. Funny that majoring in chemistry was my big “act of rebellion” but it really was.

  30. says

    m Style
    “And I think that creativity can be healing as well”,- wow, I love what you said here. I can personally attest to that!
    I am forty year old wife and a stay at home mom of two young children (I’ll try to make this as short as possible). I’ve had facial neuralgia for several years now, and needless to say depression from dealing with pain. Before my children were born I worked as an Accountant, BUT as a child I loved art (drawing, painting). Even went to a four year art school along with a regular school (my parents are both chemical engineers, don’t know much about art, but thank God they did see how I constantly was consumed in my drawings…)
    After my neuralgia nothing could really cheer me up, I lost interest and joy. Then roughly a year ago, I started a blog (a style blog with lots of do-it-yourself projects) and seems like expressing myself in a creative way helped me feel better physically. Unfortunately, my pain is still there, but my energy level and my old zest for life finally seem to come back. No way, I can go back to Accounting now. Even if it takes for me to go back to school, I want to be connected to art somehow….
    Thanks so much for this post!! Very inspiring.
    maya (aka Soccer Mom Style)

  31. says

    Both. A person could be predisposed to be creative. Environment can enhance that natural ability, as well as inspire another, less innately creative, to become more creative–sort of a creative thinking learning. A parent and environment can foster creativity and creative thinking :)

  32. says

    Thanks for sharing this, Darcy! This dichotomy really fascinates me, and I think it’s a really important part of this whole larger discussion! A similar thing happened to me with gardening. My mom has always had a huge garden, and we were encouraged to help but also required to help, and somewhere way back there, for whatever reason, I decided I really hated gardening. Once I finally lived in my own place, I wanted to plant some flowers, and then why not a few vegetables… And now I love gardening!
    Likewise, my son (nearly 6 years old) has been a music-maker from birth, singing and moving and finding tonal accuracy fairly early on. He spends a good chunk of time picking out tunes on his keyboard and banging on our drumset, but even though he sometimes asks for help, he often gets frustrated and rejects a lot (not all) of the help I give him, and he actually gets kind of crazy if I try to take him to one of the music classes I teach. The musical propensity is definitely there, but having musical parents may cause him to reject it – at least in the form that we manifest – and maybe (hopefully) come back to it later.
    What does all this point to? Not sure. One could say musical ability is inherited, but research actually shows that musical ability is distributed on a bell curve in the general population…and that early exposure significantly impacts a child’s propensity to make music. I’m not sure the same could be said of gardening. It all sounds like a sort of love-hate relationship all wound up in the relationships between the people involved.

  33. Kayte says

    I recommend this book . See if your library has it or can get it through interlibrary loan. My daughter just finished a two week class based on it at our local art museum. It was fantastic. The class included a parent’s class in which they discussed the authors’ 25 years of research where they discussed children’ ability to be creative being a part of every child and how a paradigm shift in our schooling systems and our approach as parents can be used to ensure that each child’s creative and inventive potential is reached.

  34. Amy Fields says

    Hi. I love this post! I am adopted. I never knew my biological family. The only mom I knew sewed, knitted, cross stitched, arranged flowers, and many other creative persuits. She made sure I was exposed to art, did crafts with me and taught me many new things. Because of her I take pictures, scrapbook, and cross stich. My son who is also adopted and I can attest to the fact that there is not one stitch (no pun intended) of creativity in his bio family is being exposed to art and allowed the freedom to create. He loves clay, markers, and paint. I do believe that nature brings a desire to create but nuture was a major impact on me and my son’s artistic endeavors.

  35. says

    I subscribe to both nature & nurture and although that was still a debate when I took Psych 101 in the 80′s. I think more and more the studies are finding it’s both. But forget about studies.
    I have a 4yr old who draws constantly and although I’m a sculptor and music teacher I’m reluctant to ‘teach’ her anything. SHe has an art room full of materials and access to music in many parts of the house – I feel it’s enough. I often dream of having a business that offers opportunities for people to noodle around and create in whatever medium (or even no medium) and I wonder what I’d call it … I keep coming back to ‘Imagine’ since I think that is the genesis of creation.

  36. says

    I think that environment plays a role but I believe that some people are born more creative than others. I have two daughters, 14 months apart. While one is quite a bit more into crafting and activities that, on the surface, seem creative, I believe my other daughter is the more creative of the two. My older daughter loves to craft and make activities but hers always look just like the teacher’s or the sample. She likes life inside the lines. My younger daughter doesn’t have much patience for those kinds of activities but is extremely creative. She is constantly coming up with hugely elaborate imaginary play situations and making her own songs and melodies, etc.
    So I do believe that environment can play a huge role but I also believe that it has to be there to start with, so to speak. Some people are just inside the box thinkers and some people are outside the box thinkers. Both have tremendous value.
    I also think that creativity can be a coping mechanism. In the examples that you used about people who have overcome adversity I think that its possible some of their creativity was an escape from reality.
    Very intriguing question.

  37. says

    Such an excellent point about labeling. Its such an instinctual thing for us to want to label things so we can relate and understand them but we forget how damaging it can be to a person.