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The child as organizational colleague

Lessons learned from the "tiny anarchic guerrillas" in our midst

A review essay on Alexandra Lange's The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury, 416pp),
and Darren O’Donnell's Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract (Coach House Books, 250pp)

The Literary Review of Canada, June 2018

by Ian Garrick Mason


“A is for AMY who fell down the stairs
B is for BASIL assaulted by bears
C is for CLARA who wasted away
D is for DESMOND thrown out of a sleigh…”

And so this alphabet continues, a twenty-six-page litany of horrible ends. Written and illustrated by the utterly original talent Edward Gorey in the 1960s, The Gashlycrumb Tinies is a short and darkly funny romp through a Victorian-esque catalog of arbitrary, sometimes implausible deaths that might befall a child—U is for UNA who slipped down a drain—each lethal incident brought about by heedlessness, external malevolence, or simple bad luck. The humour of the work arises from Gorey’s way of combining de-familiarization (the children are roughly sketched and dressed in late-nineteenth-century clothing) and slightly exaggerated period-appropriate language (Hector is “done in by a thug”) with our own fears and guilts as adults.

The process by which children transform from vulnerable and wholly dependent infants into confident and self-reliant men and women is confusing for everyone involved. And given the stakes, the physical and social structures we create to protect and shepherd children through this transformation are often both contentious and surrounded by minefields of intense emotion. Whether it’s post-war living room arguments over Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, 1980’s-era litigation against “unsafe” playground equipment and toys, progressive education vs “3 Rs” debates, or the current embrace of both helicopter parenting and the mixed nostalgia and guilt it spawns, we’ve honed the art of being simultaneously uncertain and righteous about the ways we raise our kids—and about how we tell other people to raise theirs.

The questions that children seem to generate out of thin air as they make their way in the world, after all, must be answered not only by parents in regard to their own offspring, but also by society at large. The answers are not easy. On the one hand, they force us to ask ourselves what kind of adults we’d like our children to grow up to be: “self-confident”, “resilient”, “curious”, and “creative” are attributes that seem to command general societal agreement at the moment, but the consensus is a limited one. If you offered “pious” or “hard-charging” or “ladylike” or “ruggedly independent” to that list you’d likely find yourself in an argument.

On the other hand, on a daily basis we have to make choices about children that may or may not align well with our more considered, long-term views. A child asks to be allowed to go the mall for the first time with her friends, and her parents must make judgments, while she stands with arms folded waiting for an answer: about the friends they have met, the “friends” they haven’t met and may not even be aware of, the types of people who might be at the mall, the hazards that may or may not lie en route, and the girl’s age and track record of making good judgments for herself (an analysis that parenthood inevitably distorts one way or the other). Though they usually are granted more time to think, schools and policy makers, too, must develop their rules and regulations in a state of dynamic tension among enlightened aspirations, a host of unknowns, and immediate pressures, whether political, budgetary, or legal. To a cash-strapped school system, a general long-term principle about the good life – even one we all agree with, like “encouraging resilience is better than over-protectiveness” – often has little practical power in the face of a single successful lawsuit about a hazard that could have been avoided here and now. 

While parents and schools and governments argue and make (and later reverse) decisions, working patiently in the background is the physical environment that surrounds our children – a “third teacher”, in the words of Italian pre-school pioneer and education philosopher Loris Malaguzzi. This is the starting point for New York City-based architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange, whose book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, presents a critical history of the objects with which and the environments within which children have grown up over the past one hundred years or so. Given her professional focus, it’s no surprise that she is a firm believer in the potential of design for shaping culture and influencing behaviour, and for developing children in a better way. Lange declares right up front that our built environment “is making kids less healthy, less independent, and less imaginative. What those hungry brains require is freedom.” With that ringing call, she proceeds to make her case for securing children’s mental liberty—and physical liberty too—from the scale of building blocks all the way to the scale of cities.

Her recommendations follow a consistent logic. Homes that provide both shared family spaces and spaces where kids can make guilt-free messes and can leave them there while working on multi-day personal projects are better ones to grow up in—a principle that should resonate with adults who routinely leave more than ten applications open on their computers. Toys that are modular, open-ended, and robust—Lincoln Logs, Minecraft, even cardboard boxes—are to be preferred over toys with too much “explicitness of purpose” (yes, she’s looking at you, Heartlake City LEGO). Well-designed children’s rooms should have minimal clutter and decoration to leave space for the work of young imaginations, an approach that while it may seem perfectly tuned to the mimimalism of the current moment, in fact evolved, as Lange explains, in close alignment with the early twentieth century’s “hygiene aesthetic”, which sought to reduce child mortality and illness through the use of easy-to-clean surfaces and the elimination of places where dust could collect.

Widening her field of view beyond the home, she makes the case for re-introducing a calibrated level of risk into playgrounds, so that children can learn to face fears, recover from failure, and challenge themselves to get better. Her ambition for cities seeks to reduce more serious levels of risk, meanwhile, arguing that neighbourhoods with thoughtfully designed streets and long, contiguous areas of safe exploration are far better for children than those with high-speed thoroughfares and crosswalks that drivers ignore.

As obvious a point as the latter may appear, it stands as an instance of the human dilemmas to which good design must respond: it’s one thing for a government to write a rule saying that cars must stop at crosswalks when pedestrians are waiting to cross, but whether drivers end up obeying that rule in practice is quite another matter. In many areas today—my own included, unfortunately—stopping at a crosswalk actually surprises other drivers (a safety risk in itself, ironically) because it’s so uncommon to do so. Rather than advocating for the imposition of a new rule, likely to be ignored, urban designers may seek instead to minimize the number of crossings that pedestrians have to make in their journeys. If children can reach their school and a good park without crossing any major streets, changing driver behaviour at crosswalks becomes less of a priority.

Risk and parenting is a central theme of Lange’s book, and it helps her to move from the physical structures that her design eye naturally focuses on to the people – and people structures – that objects and buildings support and influence. As part of her advocacy for “redesigning cities for children”, for example, she sympathetically discusses the “free-range-parenting” movement that calls for a relaxation of the white-knuckled grip that modern parents place on their children’s ability to roam – a movement led, in part, by Lenore Skenazy, who found herself condemned as the “world’s worst mom” for allowing her nine-year-old to ride the subway without adult supervision. Lange emphasizes a striking statistic that captures “the change in territory granted to an eight-year-old in 1926 (six miles from home) and that of his great-grandson in 2007 (three hundred yards from home, the end of his quiet suburban street). The result,” she argues, “has been a rise in childhood obesity, damaging effects on mental health resulting from limiting self-directed experience and peer interactions, and even physical apprehension of geography.”

Her point is a strong one: Basil’s parents should stop fearing he’ll be assaulted by bears if he goes outside on his own, and keeping Basil on a short leash will merely turn him into a fragile, risk-averse grown-up. I wholeheartedly agree, in principle – though my enthusiasm is immediately tempered by the fact that coyotes have moved into my sprawling suburban neighbourhood over the past few years, prompting warnings from the municipal government to keep children away from woods and parks at twilight. The Little Red Riding Hood metaphor, historically used to conjure fears of random street crime, is unexpectedly less metaphorical now.

It’s not only the liberty of after-school explorations that she encourages us to expand, but also that of in-school learning. Lange praises the now century-long shift from dimly lit, fixed-desk, rote-learning schools to those with open plans, flexible furniture, and a discovery-driven teaching curriculum. She dismisses the educational standards movement of the 1980s as a conservative “backlash”, and though she admits that her own open-plan schooling experience had mixed results – “I realized, as I approached college, that I was years behind the standard in calculus and French (albeit years ahead in creative writing and feminist theory and exposure to the brilliance of Zora Neale Hurston)” – she sees the open-plan philosophy as best-suited to preparing children for an economy of the future that will require “research, discussion, exploration, and tinkering, skills children can only learn by doing.”

While Lange’s educational philosophy focuses on preparing children for eventual work as adults, Darren O’Donnell shifts the spotlight onto the question of what children can do now, as children. O’Donnell is the long-time artistic director of Toronto-based performance company Mammalian Diving Reflex, and the second half of his book Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract is a fascinating reflection on his experiences – and the lessons and principles he drew from them – in incorporating children into his company’s artistic program, not only as performers but also as administrators and leaders. The company’s projects are interventionist in nature, seeking to test new configurations of human interaction (for example, by having children give haircuts to admirably up-for-it adults in a real barbershop) under the non-threatening cover of “art”. “We create a new and unusual social reality by performing that social reality,” he explains.

In treating children as artistic collaborators and organizational colleagues, however, O’Donnell is in fact hoping to inspire a peaceful, slow-burning social revolution – the manifesto for which he lays out in the book’s first half. He is rightly convinced that children are capable not only of great creativity, but also of doing much of the work required to plan and deliver creative projects. Further, because they lack verbal filters, have not yet learned to repress their feelings, enjoy only the most limited tolerance for boredom, and generally bring energy to everything they touch, he believes that children should be included in a much wider range of adult-world endeavours than just the arts. While he does admit, wisely, that in certain areas like “firefighting or heart surgery” the integration of children as colleagues might be “more difficult”, O’Donnell sees children as the future shock troops – “let’s parachute the little kids in everywhere, like tiny anarchic guerillas”, he declares – in a gently subversive battle against both “bureaucratic totalitarianism” and capitalism itself.

It is clear that both Lange and O’Donnell have deeply optimistic views of human nature, and within their own domains the implications that flow from these views are coherent and likely to produce improved outcomes for all concerned: children, their parents, and adults at large. Expanded physical freedom, better-designed environments, and the connection of emotions like joy and curiosity with learning and work are all things to be welcomed and encouraged.

Their views, however, have blind spots, which become larger and more serious as we widen the scope of analysis. First, Lange and O’Donnell—both accomplished, creative people—write as if almost all important things issue from creative processes, and as if properly designed societies and their activities should unfold in entirely organic, natural, self-motivated ways without orders being barked or performance being measured – an embrace of risk, in effect, as a principle of social organization. For Lange, openness and blank canvases, imagination and collaboration, are key ingredients in the development of young adults ready for a new world of work. O’Donnell has a similar vision, arguing that the incorporation of children into adult working environments “will become easier and easier as the economy continues the transition into one in which people slide from project to project, the lines between working, volunteering, supporting, building one’s resumé, and contributing to the community becoming increasingly porous…”

To an extent, of course, this is true. New ventures are often highly creative – at first – and place challenging yet ambiguous demands on their founders (“just go figure it out” is a standard response to employee questions in such firms). Large companies today often spawn “innovation labs” and assign their bright talents to them in hopes they’ll create transformative new products. And the so-called “gig economy” has put a premium on the self-management skills of many people faced with winning and delivering projects on their own.

These are some of the best-known incarnations of our “future” economy – yet they’re not nearly as creative and open as we imagine them. Successful start-ups have to impose bureaucratic rules on themselves to avoid running out of money and to ensure they ship products on time; innovation labs start with Post-It notes and brainstorming sessions but must manage their project pipelines with stage-gating, business cases, and probability assessments; the gig economy is partly made up of creative roles and partly made up of hourly jobs like waiting tables and driving for Uber.

This applies even to an organization as central to the new economy’s conception of itself as Apple. For many, Apple’s mantra “it just works” seems to sum up the central role of creativity in the modern economy, generating visions of the late Steve Jobs elegantly cutting to the heart of a user interface problem with a leap of inspired thinking. Yet Apple’s vast profitability as a company is equally as dependent – and from a work-effort and resource-allocation point of view, vastly more dependent – on analytical thinking, deliberative strategy, number crunching, rigorous supply chain maintenance, and manufacturing processes managed down to the nanometre.

Critically, most of this work, most of the time, is not fun. The vast majority of jobs, now and in the future, involve rules, routine, bosses, and hard, sometimes unpleasant effort. While risk is indeed a foundational part of economic activity, firms do their best to take risks deliberately and with forethought, and to reduce all other risks—financial, reputational, or physical—to as close to zero as they can make them with proven tools like measurement and process. We therefore do our children a disservice if we prepare them for the art but not for the grind, for the inspiration but not for the implementation. They need to be capable of doing either, and often both.

Second, while both Lange and O’Donnell seem perplexed by the aversion to those human-scale risks perceived by parents and schools and other organizations, neither seem eager to ask why that aversion exists. The risks that Lange writes the most about, for example, are accidents that might happen on streets or on unsafe playground equipment, and both of these risks can indeed be mitigated with better design. But modern parents restrict the geographic range of their children’s independence not solely from fear of cars but also from fear of violence, kidnapping, and harassment. Tentatively circling this idea, she quotes cultural anthropologist Dwayne Dixon, who explains that Japanese kids are allowed a greater range of movement because they and their parents believe that “ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others”, and she wistfully looks back at the wide territory explored by the young characters in Maud Hart Lovelace’s 1942 children’s book Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. Yet while Lange clearly understands that a foundation of social trust is required before parents will let their kids wander off for hours, she doesn’t explore where that trust went.

If she did, she might find an irony to ponder. The civilization-wide movement toward greater personal liberty that began to crest in the 1960s – and that promoted the open schools and creative learning that Lange champions, as well as the emotional expressivity and freedom from rules that O’Donnell loves – didn’t restrict itself to making the positive assertion that each individual should be free to choose their own destiny and lifestyle. Because the movement faced resistance from traditional institutions, it also made the negative assertion that those institutions had no legitimate authority to constrain anyone’s behaviour: that they were corrupt, mendacious, immoral. As a self-described revolution, the movement placed critical focus on the illegitimacy of systems, not on the flaws of individual people.

So as deplorable acts have come to light in the course of time, the cultural conclusion in each case has been sweeping rather than particular. The Pentagon Papers proved that governments are liars. The sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church proved that priests (and by extension religion) are not to be trusted. The #MeToo exposures are proving that all men – “feminist” men included – are a danger to women. In the face of this apparently endless series of systemic betrayals, is it any wonder that the average person has tightened their circle of trust down to the number of people they can count on one hand? Without social trust, our perception of risk goes sky-high. We pull our children closer in fear.

As doom-laden as that might sound, there are countervailing winds. Pushing us in the opposite direction is our pressing practical need to earn money, to be able to leave our children in the care of others while we do so, and even, as adults, to be able to work with each other cooperatively. We can’t simply give up on trust and carry on regardless, our hands warily resting on our pistols. But we can’t just wish it back into being, either.

In small-scale social configurations with frequent interactions among members – families, villages – trust grows on its own. Large-scale society, by contrast, needs to be far more deliberate about the matter. An institution that has lost public trust has to prove itself all over again, not simply by acting better day to day, but also by instituting rules, training, and enforcement and reporting mechanisms that demonstrate to all skeptics that improved behaviour is now built into the system itself. This only makes sense, because it was the system – not a few bad apples – that was assigned the burden of blame for the offending acts.

When O’Donnell seeks to destroy “bureaucratic totalitarianism” through anarchic subversion by high-energy children, he may have in his mind the unbending discipline and rules that produce reliable profits for rapacious investors (or whichever aspect of capitalism he opposes), but to the extent his revolution turned out to be successful he’d also be destroying the control systems that all organizations must use to create and maintain trust. “Accepting feelings is to accept that discomfort is okay and to understand that any workplace without feelings is a workplace in the service of a deeply conservative, factory-like mentality,” he declares. “I don’t know where [this proposal] will end up, I just know that when a child loves or hates someone, they simply state it.”

In fact we can make an educated guess about where this will end up, because there are quite a number of workplaces that were, until recently, proud to have cultures where people could express and act on their feelings whenever they felt like it – and these are the same workplaces that today are the subject of sexual harassment-related lawsuits, angry social media campaigns, and devastatingly negative press coverage. As O’Donnell himself discovered when his core team of teenaged artists opposed his wish to broaden participation within their neighbourhood – “although it was about creating a unique and safe environment for creative expression,” he reflects, “there was also an element of elitism for elitism’s sake that was absolutely crucial to the youth” – human emotions can run in both inclusive and exclusive directions, even in the context of an enlightened artistic program like his. Similarly, in one of her only comments relating to the darker (or, more charitably, less social) side of children, Lange remembers how at a playground with large, interconnectable building blocks – though not enough of them – “teams and raiding parties developed, undoing the work of my eight-year-old and his temporary friends as fast as they could build.” Her son retreated in tears.

One of the awkward but inescapable challenges of human life is that we have to hew to a number of different values simultaneously if we are to be able both to live well and to live together. We must raise our children to find creativity and joy in work when they can – but when they can’t, to have the grit required to work anyway. Using transparency and rules we must re-build our trust in the systems and society around us, so that we can confidently allow our children to take more risks. And while we must understand and respect our own emotions as human beings – not just our right to have them, but their power over us, for good and ill -- we’ll also have to get much better at conditioning the social expression of our emotions through self-restraint and more thoughtful speech.

Once upon a time, after all, that was the definition of growing up.

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