Maybe it’s mother’s day. Maybe it’s the death of Maurice Sendak on May 8th. It’s definitely Robert Townsend’s unassuming writing style and his “child-like” laser-sharp perception, in his Up the Organization, that made me think about learning from children, much more so lately. And then, one of my favorite comic strips, “Non-Sequitur” gave me added inspiration.
So, let me take some space here for children, or children’s common sense.
I learned from Sendak’s interview with Terry Gross why he stopped offering autographs and visiting classrooms: because he ended up frightening children and making them miserable. How so? Because adults impose on children the “social non-sense” of autographs: We teach children to not write in books but then take them to queue up (requiring patience, a rare commodity in children) to face this “scary” man with hair coming out of his nose, who is for sure going to take their favorite books away. What’s more, he was going to write something in their books?! Horror!! So, one time, a little boy who was coached and nudged by his father to come to the desk where Sendak was sitting, and to surrender his book. The little guy was clearly agitated and frightened, and when he finally got to the table, he broke down and shouted, “Don’t crap up my book!”
Sendak then had to take the dad on the side and have a little chat, reassured him that the boy’s response was lovely and really courageous, and dad was not to punish the boy for being honest, though he did embarrass the dad. Shortly after this incident, Sendak stopped doing autographs.
Similarly, Sendak stopped visiting classrooms because of the paradox that made him, the person who adored children, the enemy of the children. Inevitably before his visits, the teachers would prepare the children with warnings and threats about “be nice, raise you hand before speaking, go to the bathroom first…etc.” Took all the fun out of the intended visits.
I am not advocating that we don’t provide any rules or boundaries; of course, we all need them regardless of age. I am, however, pointing out the rigidity and the unnecessary paradoxes we keep building around us. Along the way, we corrupt our children’ sense of creativity and fun during that process – as well as our own.
The author of “Non-Sequitur” has a brilliant way of exposing some of this nonsense. In a three-day illustration, Danae, the precocious and self-righteous girl in Non-Sequitur, one day passed a store with a sign in the window that said, “Attention: Not liable for lost items or injuries in this store!” A “legal epiphany” came to Danae, in the form of “Accountable Fashion Accessories!”, wearable boards on the front and back with messages, such as “Warning: Nothing is my fault!” on the front, and “so Shut Up” on the back. She reasoned that if business can do it, so can she.
These days, we see these types of disclaimers so frequently we no longer really see them. But once in a while when I actually “see” such a sign in my local gym’s locker room, I just want to shout, “Really? You really think I’d come and hold you accountable if I lost something here?!” Yes, I know some people have launched frivolous lawsuits…and won. But inevitably, we impose restrictions and boundaries on the majority based on the few outliers.
So, what’s the point in relating these stories? How is this related to organizations? Just this: Organizations and lives are intertwined. Life and work, it’s not about balancing them; it’s about how to embrace them, in ways that make sense to each individual.
From these reflections, and remembering James March’s notion of “The Technology of Foolishness” and my fondness for children’s book, such as “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” I thought, once again, why not actively create channels of learning from children?
Here is my suggestion to all managers, of all levels but particularly the top levels: consult with third graders, or 8th graders, or juniors in high school. If you can’t explain your decisions, or proposals in the workplace, to the future generations, that’s already a loud signal. Once they understand what you are trying to do, watch their facial expressions, and listen to their reactions. And please do give them a report back on what suggestions from them you may have incorporated.
Here are a couple of links demonstrating children’s perspectives; they are about much bigger causes than what I am advocating here. However, the point is that when children take up a cause, it’s to clean up one of the messes adults have created. So, why don’t we shorten the path by working with them sooner? After all, as Chief Seattle once said, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
A similar suggestion that I mentioned before: Bring some of your favorite children’s books and read to school children, chat about the books and uncover some creative suggestions from their reactions. Why not start with a few of Sendak’s books as a way of honoring and celebrating his achievement?
In addition to regaining some of the wisdom of innocence, working with children also helps instill and/maintain a sense of humility in us. I see this as a win-win strategy. Don’t you?!
This week, in reflection upon the first anniversary of my mother’s passing, I am taking some time to visit her neighborhoods, near and far. I will come back to this space after the Memorial Day long weekend.
Happy Mother’s Day to all. I love you, Mom. Till June,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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