Friday, March 26, 2010

It's Good to Be 4

Last Monday, I was pounding away on my laptop while sitting sideways on the couch, feet up. My 4-year-old little guy snuggled in beside me, smooshed between the back cushions of the couch and the side of my ribs. This is his favorite spot from which to watch me work, and he’s no trouble because he just quietly watches me type. It’s like having a warm and cushiony armrest.

After a little while, I noticed that he was breathing deeply. I asked, are you okay, sweetie? He said simply, “I like the smell of you.”

Over the weekend, we’d gone to a wedding and my husband put on his suit. This is a rarity. When he came downstairs, our little guy gasped and said, “Daddy, you look so beautiful!”

From an adult, we would have questioned the propriety of these statements. But, from a 4-year-old they are precious. 4-year-olds don’t think it's odd to comment on the way someone smells (when they’re not wearing cologne, that is) or to describe a man as beautiful (unless you’re a boy-crazy teenager), but most adults would re-word these thoughts before uttering them. Why is that? Children say exactly what they are thinking without censoring themselves with political correctness and social norms. They have endless confidence because they haven’t yet learned to try to shield themselves from failure. Everything in their world is experimental and learning-oriented, and failure is just a natural part of it. Certainly, we all need to learn to edit our inner monologues, letting out only what improves relationships and situations. This is part of being an adult. But, maybe, we edit too much. Maybe, we edit out the creativity and the impetus for change.

When was the last time you shared a still-fuzzy, crazy idea and just “talked it out” right on the spot? Do you jump in and contribute or mentally wordsmith until an opportunity to contribute has passed? How often do you ask a question or offer an opinion in a meeting even though you worry it might sound dumb or be unpopular? Do you dig deep and find the real truth when it is needed to prompt positive change? Are you willing to mix it up with people so that ideas are fully explored? Are you willing to tell your own personal stories for the benefit of others, even though disclosure makes you feel vulnerable? Do you address difficult issues even though it may alter the perceptions others have about you?

When I hit a certain age, a voice inside my head said, “Who cares what others think? You know your stuff, so stick to your guns! If niceness and positive spin obscure the goals, don't be nice! And, while you’re at it, take some responsibility for helping others to do the same.” Another friend describes it as no longer “suffering fools.”

So, I fired a few of my inner censors. And, yes, way too often I feel as if I’m sticking my neck out alone. But, if someone doesn’t demonstrate that being genuine, taking some risks, and respectfully disagreeing with others can be done without resultant catastrophe, how will anyone else ever feel safe enough to try? And how will we ever make changes if we’re too scared to discuss the real issues? Or dream up the breakthrough ideas if we are too afraid of failure? Or help others if we are too scared to look our own personal truth in the eye?

Take a chance. Rediscover you inner 4-year old amidst your grown-up insight and experience. Maybe by taking a step back toward childhood we can step that much closer to creativity and positive change.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I'm Obviously No Girl Scout

I was never a Girl Scout and I wasn’t quite certain that it would be right for my two young daughters, but my husband talked me into letting our girls join Daisy Scouts this year because of his fond memories of boy scouting when he was a child. After reading the literature, it seemed that there could be little harm in allowing our daughters to join such a well-established organization with professed values (Girl Scout promise and law).

We have nothing but praise for the particular troops to which our daughters belong and their dedicated and responsible troop leaders. But, recently, my husband attended a father-daughter dance with our girls and I attended World Friendship Day with them, which are events that pull together a number of troops at various scouting levels throughout the area. I now wonder if exposure to the Girl Scouts, after seeing it beyond the two troops to which our girls belong, will teach our daughters values completely contrary to the organization’s professed values.

My husband said that, when he arrived at the father-daughter dance with our two young daughters, there were some tables near the door, presumably staffed by senior scouts, where attendees were to check in and be directed to their tables. He was appalled by the older Girl Scouts’ lack of knowledge, discourteousness, and unhelpfulness. We passed this off as an anomaly.

Then, I attended World Friendship Day with my daughters. I can no longer think that the first signs of trouble that my husband noticed at the father-daughter dance are an anomaly. I found little information on “World Friendship Day” when I tried to look it up online. However, I assume it is somehow connected with “
World Thinking Day” as described on the site, which is purposed to work together to end extreme poverty and hunger, celebrate international friendships, and remind U.S. Girl Scouts that they are part of a global community.

I saw attempts to achieve these purposes—or, at least, not to hinder them—in
some of the programs for World Friendship Day. However, the parts that did seem consistent with the purposes were overshadowed by everything ranging from a simple laziness and lack of effort to understand or share even a single relevant bit of information about the culture represented to blatant mockeries of other cultures.

Not bothering to find even a single relevant detail about another culture, taking a “close enough” attitude that confuses two different cultures, or mocking other cultures—and then going onstage to parade this lack of regard—don’t say “world friendship” to me. For example:
  • Is it possible that the best way to build community with those of Egyptian heritage is acting out the song “Walk Like an Egyptian,” including Halloween-style mummies playing guitar? It’s a catchy song and the skit was mildly amusing, but if Girl Scouts from Cairo had been in the audience, would they have felt included and proud, or would they have felt that we don’t care enough about them to do any work at all to understand their culture? We must make an effort.

  • Did it celebrate friendship with the people of Tonga to represent their culture by dancing to a song that repeated the word “Hawaii” throughout the lyrics so that there was no denying it had nothing to do with Tonga? Sure, it was beautifully staged, but how would troops of Girl Scouts from Tonga and Hawaii have felt if they were in the audience and realized that their separate, unique cultures were indistinguishable to their U.S. counterparts? I’m certain there was no intent to be disrespectful, but choice of this song was careless. We must be mindful.

  • Can we connect with our friends in Greece by watching a performance in which girls dressed as various Greek gods pushed and insulted each other onstage in mockery of a central part of Greek heritage (i.e., its mythology) and, not to mention, the history of civilization? We must be respectful.

  • How does a bunch of teenagers throwing flour at each other to the tune of “That’s Amore” and trashing the stage, and then a girl dressed as a caricature of an Italian man saying with an exaggerated accent, “Whats-a goin’ on-a here?” show respect for Italians, each other, and school property? An adult (troop leader?) prefaced the performance by announcing that she took no accountability for it. We must be accountable.
I understand that young girls finding their way on the path toward developing good judgment may err on the side of irreverence, may try to skirt responsibility or slack off, may get so caught up in the moment that they lose focus, or may not have enough life experience to have more than a parochial and egocentric view of the world. But, I do not understand how so many adults could rationalize such performances under the umbrella of world friendship, nor do I understand the role of a troop leader if not to guide the girls to express their creativity in ways consistent with the Girl Scout law. I am certain that no one operated with ill intent; but I am very, very disappointed that so many people did not stop to consider the impact of their decisions, words, and actions on the formation of values of the little girls looking up to them.

Fortunately, there were some presentations that were very good (e.g., a wonderfully informative video on Korea in which each troop member had an equal part; an authentic dance from India that clearly showed considerable effort and cultural interest on the part of the troop) and others that were largely innocuous, having at least a small bit of relevance mixed in with what I'm sure were well-intentioned (albeit, sometimes questionable) attempts at fun and humor. It is these upon which I focused with my daughters as I tried to un-teach the disrespectful lessons taught by the other presentations. I also tried to explain the confusing truth that just because a number of adults (like troop leaders) and supposed role models (like the senior scouts) visibly represent an organization, quite a few of them may not understand or demonstrate that organization’s values.

Because teaching our children to appreciate diversity and be inclusive is a priority for my husband and me, I will have to seriously consider whether or not my girls will participate in such an event in the future. I will also have to consider the ethics of supporting an organization like the Girl Scouts that permits such lax interpretations of its professed values to be paraded in front of impressionable 5- and 6-year olds at their first cooperative Girl Scout events; a tougher choice since I think my daughters’ particular troop leaders do, in fact, set the right example.

I shared my opinions and concerns with the regional Girl Scout office in the hope that some action will be taken to ensure that future events and activities of the Girl Scouts in my area are, in fact, consistent with the values professed by the Girl Scout organization. I'm sharing it with you, here, to respectfully ask that if you are involved with Girl Scouts or other organizations where parents like me trust others to reinforce the values we attempt to teach our children at home, that you try to be mindful of the message you send through your decisions, words, and actions. Let's set the bar higher.

My hope was that my daughters would grow through their involvement with scouting. I’d like to think that’s still possible.


I received a very prompt and courteous email from the CEO of the regional office of the Girl Scouts. The tone and content were perfect: sincerely apologetic and focused on taking corrective action. The names of those taking accountability for developing corrective measures were listed. The CEO promised that I will be made aware of these proposed measures.

As long as they do what they say, I can't ask for more.

Update to the update:

As I feared, there was no follow through or follow up. Apparently, Girl Scouts is a lot of fine words with little underlying substance. I hope the interest that my girls have in it burns out quickly. I, for one, have wasted enough time with it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Captain Obvious Rides Again

At the risk of being who my dear friend and colleague, Device Guy (Twitter ID = @DeviceGuy; follow him, he’s a genius), calls “Captain Obvious,” I just had to share this “aha!” moment with you.

I was catching up on one of my favorite blogs, Paul Smith’s Welcome to the Occupation. (It’s an HR blog, but I like it anyway ;-) ) In one of Paul’s posts, he linked to a video by workshop facilitator Joe Gerstandt entitled, Fresh Definition for Diversity. I’ve spent the past year or so learning a lot about diversity and inclusion. I thought I had developed a grasp of the fundamental definitions of these words. However, a significant learning for me came as a result of the particular way Joe Gerstandt phrased his definition. I’m sure I heard a similar definition before, but it just didn’t register in the same way for me as it did when I watched the video.

Joe Gerstandt simply says that "diversity means difference." Check. I knew that. But, then he talks about it as "a relational attribute.” Relational. My mental model for "differences" was more focused on the uniqueness of individuals — sets of qualities unique to each person (Joe Gerstandt might say I was muddling "diversity" with "talent") — rather than the simple distance between two points — the relational difference.

Relational differences are momentary, transient, and only real for those directly involved. They require the participation of two entities to exist. Aha!

This sheds a new light on the whole insider/outsider concept for me. Viewing differences as relational between any two individuals on a point-in-time basis, instead of relational between each individual and the norms of the insider group on a more enduring basis, puts the hierarchy off balance and renders it irrelevant. In my new mental model, all of us and none of us are insiders and outsiders. The differences only mean something important to each of us individually, helping us to make sense of our world through mental models, judgments, comparisons, decisions. Yet, in the overall universe they are equally weighted because they are shifting, transient, without benchmarks — in a sense, unreal.

When I say "unreal," I mean it in the sense that we can't rely on differences as absolutes or truths upon which we can build our value and reward systems (although, that's exactly what we've done, with the result that we have hierarchies largely based on privilege rather than merit). But, that isn't to say that differences are without value. Differences are the basis of potential energy, which can be transformed into kinetic energy to accomplish work, if only we can overcome inertia. Herein lies the power of inclusion. Think of how much we can accomplish if we harness the power of all of that potential energy existing between each uniquely talented individual and the uniquely talented individual beside him/her.

That’s the whole point, isn’t it? (“Aha!” or “Duh!” — never quite sure.)

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