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Avoiding the Shut Down Mode

by Tom Johnson on Aug 30, 2009
categories: creativity technical-writing

In a recent episode of This American Life titled "Going Big," Geoffrey Canada explains his model of Baby College, which is a nine-week workshop where poor, inner-city parents to be  learn to raise their children in ways that break their children out of the poverty cycle. Canada gives up on breaking the parents out of the poverty cycle and instead focuses on teaching parents the childhood rearing techniques that will enable the children to break free.

What exactly are these techniques? Nothing that middle-class suburban families don't already know -- read to your children, encourage your children with positive words and praise, give your children opportunities to develop and play, and other norms. In contrast, Canada said some parents in poverty circles feel that a well-behaved child is one who sits quietly and keeps to himself. At every point they seem to "shut a child down" -- saying Sit down, Be quiet, Keep your hands to yourself, Get over here, Shut your mouth, and so on.

Listening to Canada describe the behavior, I thought of an experience I had while living in Harlem. I was going to graduate school at Columbia, and due to housing shortages and high costs of living, we lived on 134th and Lexington. One day while walking down the sidewalk, we saw a mother scolding her boy, who was no more than 10. Apparently he had said a swear word or two, and the mother said, "Boy, you better shut your *&^%^& mouth or I'll whack you," or something like that.

It struck me as absurd. Didn't the mother realize where her son had learned to swear? It was the equivalent of a parent smacking a child because the child smacked someone, and telling the child -- while smacking him -- not to smack anybody. Could it be any more obvious?

This was, as you probably guessed, before we had our own children, and since then we've realized that it's not always so easy to avoid this behavior. But what Canada said -- about parenting that "shuts a child down" rather than lifts him up -- made me think.

Shutting a child down, he said, prevents the child from developing and exploring and discovering the world, which is how children learn and grow. If you force children to sit quietly on the couch, probably watching TV, never speaking up, keeping to themselves, and never going outside prescribed boundaries, you prevent them from growing through the active development that occurs when children can freely express and explore their environment as themselves.

It's easier to explain this model than to actually implement it, because last night at the dinner table, while I was relaying this to Jane, our three children were howling like wolves in the living room so loud I could hardly hear myself think. Five minutes later, they were prancing around naked in a ceremonial-like chant prior to their bath. As I tried to restrain myself from "shutting them down" and instead let them reap whatever development they could from hooliganism, we finally both told them to basically pipe down and get in the tub.

Later that night, as I was trying to help the littlest two fall asleep, they snuck out and showed me how they had abundantly decorated their faces with felt-tip markers. I was already frustrated with something I couldn't figure out on the computer, and since it was the ninth time I had to guide them back to their rooms, I was pretty angry and let them know it. I snatched the pens and washed their faces with soap and water somewhat harshly.

We're lucky we have girls, because as far as I can tell, boys can be worse in the way they explore and express themselves. My colleague explained how he recently purchased new couches and came home one day to find his boy had taken a knife to each of the cushions, making big holes. Other parents' boys I know like to put pennies in VCR slots. When they come over to our house, their kids are pushing every little knob and button they can find.

And yet, despite the craziness, destruction, and inappropriate use of seemingly everything, this is how children learn and discover and grow. Lock them up in a dark room, where they can't see or hear or do anything, or make them sit quietly, where they can't freely move about and express themselves as self-acting individuals, and you lock them from growth.

I'm not recommending a parenting model that eliminates correction or restrictions on children, because I'm still doing it every day. If my children had their way, they would eat Skittles for dinner, watch Phineas and Ferb until about midnight, and then fall asleep on the floor in their clothes, without brushing their teeth, saying their prayers, or reading any books. So of course there is some balance to this freedom model. But something just feels right about giving children freedom to act independently without always shutting them down, even when they're out of line.

As I thought more about this parenting model, I also thought about professionals in careers. It seems at some point, you learn in your job that you should sit still, keep to yourself, restrain from experimentation and foolishness, and simply do the tasks that you've been given. We lose our sense of discovery and experimentation. People get a little uncomfortable when you do something they didn't request and which they're not expecting. When you break free of previous expected norms and try something new, you take risks that aren't always rewarded.

The activity in which you break free could be anything -- decorating your cube, implementing an extremely conversational style in your writing, putting in some elaborate graphics. Maybe you're a manager who decides to switch places with colleagues for a day, or you're at team lead who conducts a meeting that consist entirely of role-playing scenarios. If you're a technical writer, maybe you decide to spend half a day playing ping pong with the developers just to build rapport, or you curiously lop off the first five pages of legal and useless introductory material of your help content because you "just don't like it." Maybe you style the table of contents in an experimental way, or start embedding Flash videos in PDFs.

Whatever the activity, if it doesn't involve some level of play, some movement outside the prescribed box, then haven't you become the same child sitting quietly on the couch, keeping his mouth shut and his hands to himself because that's the box your parents -- or manager or company -- put you in? The overall effect of these experiments and expressions, even when inappropriate or inefficient, is growth and awareness in ways that that worker who has been "shut down" will never know.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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