Stupid questions to smart creators: Mary Zalla talks kids and creativity

A satire inspired by Bring Your Kids to Work Day

It comes as no surprise that kids are wonderfully, crazily creative. Because they know no boundaries, they imagine without limitations. But if kids are so excellent at ideation, why don’t we hire them? Silos Amos, founder of Silas Amos Ltd. Design Thought and former strategy director at JKR, posed this very question to Mary Zalla, Landor’s global president of consumer brands. In this blog—part of the series Stupid Questions to Smart Creators—Zalla explains why, fun as it may seem, kids simply won’t cut it in a design environment.

We know kids are creative. Why don’t we hire them?

Kids are creative. Naturally. Effortlessly. Playfully. There are many reasons for this. A big one is that kids have the distinct advantage (over adults) of not knowing what is impossible. They don’t know what they don’t know. When adults are ignorant about being ignorant, we call them idiots. When kids are like that, we call them creative.

Kids also increase their creativity quotient by thinking that everything is feasible. Barriers? Not to them. It’s like they have a magical superpower that at once renders them blind to obstacles, releases them from the laws of physics, and leaves them blissfully unmoved by conventional wisdom. Smart.

Another reason kids are so creative is that they have not completed their educations. Because school systems are usually part of large centralized governments, they are therefore highly bureaucratic. This is especially true of Western education systems, which seem to be stuck in a time warp. We continue to educate kids in the same way we have for decades, even though Western economies have changed so much and continue to be ultra-dynamic. Sir Ken Robinson, English educator, author, and speaker says, “…we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.” Too many adults have simply graduated. But kids haven’t yet. Advantage: kids.

Kids are also more creative because they spend a heck of a lot less time sitting at desks than adults. Studies show that creative thinking improves while a person is walking, and continues shortly thereafter. Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, conducted a study and found that walking—whether inside or outdoors—boosts creative inspiration. They noted, “The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.”

Kids are also aided in their creativity because they have lower levels of stress. Do you know that stress can actually change the size of your brain? As in make it smaller. That’s right—kids have the stress equation down. They don’t get stressed out, they send the stress out to all the adults around them. Adults are on the wrong side—the receiving side—of the equation. We seem automatically programmed to continuously take it all in.

Knowing that kids are set up for creative success, why don’t we hire them?

1. They’d keep asking us why we still have desk phones.

Why do we still have desk phones?

2. They’d spill all the coffee. Kids are natural spillers.

Then we adults would get stressed out over the spills and lack of coffee. And our adult brains would shrink even further, leading us to lose yet more of our dwindling creative capacities.

That’s right. Kids, and in my experience, especially boys, can weaponize anything. Working in a design firm, our office is full of X-Acto knives, scissors, paper trimmers, shredders, and harmful aerosols. In the wrong hands, each of these things is a potential hazard. We adults would be trying to work, and the kids would go all “Lord of the Flies” with our office supplies. Not pretty.

4. They would be around constantly. As in all the time.

 Let’s face it. We don’t hire kids because most adults go to work to get away from their own kids. They certainly don’t want to have to spend all day around someone else’s, no matter how creative they are.

5. They’d see what we really do all day.

A few years ago, my then seven-year-old son Elliot spent an afternoon at the office with me. When we got home that night, his dad asked how his day at work with his mom went. Elliot replied, “Mom doesn’t work. All she does is talk on the phone all day.”

That counts as work. It does.

See? Do you want to justify what it is you do all day? If not, then I suggest you resist the impulse to bring your kid to work, even on America’s national Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.

Don’t do it!

Mary Zalla and family; "Stupid questions to smart creators" series
Mary Zalla and her children pose for a family photo.

This piece was originally published on A Curate’s Egg (April 2017). Republished with permission.