A couple of years ago I opened the bottom drawer in the kitchen next to the fridge. I stopped and stared for a moment because it was full of dirty, wet dishes. Normally this was the drawer full of dish towels but for a moment I thought maybe somebody was playing a bad joke on me. My wife was gone and it was just me, our 5 year old and 3 year old.
My two kids were in the other room playing with their stuffed animals and I asked my oldest if she knew who put dirty dishes in the drawer. She motioned towards her little sister with her thumb and a half frown and said, “she was helping to put them away.” It turns out that while I was still eating at the table, my sweet little helper decided to go pull dirty plates out of the dishwasher and put them in the most accessible drawer she could find.
She had seen us put dishes away countless times and decided to do it for us. So I asked if she wanted to help again and together we put the dirty dishes back into the dishwasher. My 3 year old didn’t seem to care if the dishes went in or out of the drawer, either way it was “helping” in her mind. Also, I spent another half hour cleaning bits of spaghetti and sauce from the bottom of the drawer.
When Good Intentions Go Wrong
My 3 year didn’t understand why putting dirty dishes into the towel drawer was a problem because, well, she’s 3. But it brings up the question of how good intentions can produce undesired outcomes for others. The following are three true stories you can share with your kids. Each is a story that started with good intentions but had unintended consequences. For the first two, read “the plan” with your kids and then ask the questions that follow. Finally, read to see how the story ends.
Newspaper Box Scare
It’s April 2006 and Mission Impossible III is about to be released into theaters. Paramount Pictures which produced the film wants to promote the movie in a partnership with the Los Angeles Times. Their idea is to put a speaker into 4500 newspaper boxes around the LA area. When someone opens the box, the door is wired to trigger a speaker inside to play the Mission Impossible theme song. The marketing people think this will be an exciting surprise in an unexpected place that will make people want to go see the movie.
- If you aren’t familiar with the Mission Impossible theme song, take a moment and listen to it. How do you think people might react if this song starts playing from an unexpected place? Do you think people will laugh, be startled or get annoyed?
- What type of person would be buying newspapers from a box on the street? Kids? Parents? Teenagers? Business people? Would they be people just out enjoying their day? In a hurry to get somewhere? Would they appreciate this type of surprise?
- What if the person getting the newspaper was able to see the speaker and wire attached to the door while the music was being played? Would they immediately realize that this is a movie promotion? Would they be confused? Or would they get scared?
- Can you think of any misunderstandings that might happen?
This newspaper box promotion didn’t go all that well. The music was a surprise to people just as the marketers expected, but not in a good way. It was unnerving to hear the dramatic theme playing when the box door was opened. The speaker wires attached to the door were in plain sight. And in some cases, the speakers fell off their velcro fasteners and landed on the stack of newspapers.
All of this scared a number of people who ended up calling the police thinking that the newspaper boxes might contain a bomb. In one case, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department blew up a box after receiving a report. “This was the least intended outcome. We weren’t expecting anything like this,” said LA Times SVP John O’Loughlin.
- What do you think the movie marketers could have done differently to avoid the confusion and anxiety that their promotion caused? Or do you think this was all just a bad idea to begin with?
- Could they have predicted any of the responses that people had? What types of questions should the marketers have asked themselves about this promotion?
- How good were the marketers in using empathy for those who would encounter their promotion?
Hunger-Free Kids Act
Congress and the President are worried about childhood obesity and the nutrition that kids are getting in school lunches. To help encourage healthier eating, they pass the Hunger-Free Kids Act in July of 2010 which sets new dietary standards for cafeterias in public schools. Some of the new food standards mandate minimums for fruit and vegetable servings, reduce portion sizes of meals and set limits on salt, sugar and fat allowed in food. Some old favorites such as pizza and hamburgers are to be replaced with more nutritious options such as grilled chicken and wild rice.
- What do you think might happen if lunch sizes are smaller?
- What do you think kids will do if there are new kinds of vegetables in their lunch each day? How many kids do you think will try them?
- If lunch sizes are smaller and more of the food is vegetables and fruit, do you think kids will be full for the rest of the day? If kids don’t like the vegetables, will they eat them anyway because they don’t want to be hungry later?
- What do you think kids would do if they don’t like the new school lunch choices? Would you bring different food from home? What would you bring? Or what if kids are old enough to leave the school for lunch? Where might they go for an alternative?
- What else do you think kids might do differently because of these changes? Or do you think they will eat the provided lunches the same as they always did?
These requirements banned some unexpected foods such as some cheese and low-fat yogurt being for still having too much fat. A lot of kids hated the food and skipped the lunch lines, or only ate the things they liked which led to a lot of complaints later in the day of being hungry.
Waste of more expensive fresh fruits and vegetables become increasingly common. Among older students, the problem got even worse. “The standards led middle school and high school students to opt for vending machines or buying food off campus to avoid the lunch line.” The food kids bought elsewhere was much more likely to be junk food which was exactly what the new regulations were trying to avoid.
- Do you think Congress should have predicted some of this change in behavior among kids?
- How could they have avoided some of these outcomes?
- Do you think being a little less strict would have been a good idea? Or do you think that the healthy changes were justified even if some kids decide to get junk food elsewhere?
This last story is taken from an essay by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel. He tells of a big spider that ended up inside a urinal in the restroom. Nagel noticed the spider there for a week straight. The spider didn’t appear to like it there as it would scramble out of the way each time the urinal flushed. The question that Nagel began to think about is whether he should help the spider get out. What do you think he should do? Help it escape? Or do nothing and leave it where it is?
- Do you think it’s possible to know which choice the spider would prefer? If you knew the spider would rather stay in the urinal would you respect its wishes and do nothing? Even if it looked miserable?
- Is it possible that the spider was miserable in the urinal but might be even more miserable if it were removed?
- What might be a problem with making a choice based on what WE would want?
The following is from Nagel’s own words and explains what he decided to do:
Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to…So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor. He just sat there, not moving a muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened . . . . I left, but when I came back two hours later he hadn’t moved. The next day I found him in the same place, his legs shriveled in that way characteristic of dead spiders. His corpse stayed there for a week, until they finally swept the floor.
- Do you think Nagel made the right choice? Why or why not?
- Do you think there was a better option that he didn’t consider?
- Do you think a person has the right to make this type of choice for another creature?
Do Something? Or Do Nothing?
Sometimes the choice to help is very clear. When we see someone who has fallen down, we help them up. If an elderly neighbor needs help shoveling snow on their walkway, we grab a shovel and get to work. But there are many choices that require a little more thought and empathy before we decide what to do. The first two examples above get at how we sometimes don’t consider how people might react to our good intentions. Fully understanding another person’s perspective isn’t as easy as it might seem.
In the case of Nagel’s spider, it forces us to think about the morality of intervention. Good intentions don’t always turn out to help and sometimes hurt more than doing nothing. The morality of intervention arises in many situations such as government foreign policy–when we see suffering in the world our good impulses are to “do something”. But frequently our idea of doing something occurs with a naiveté in other areas that have unintended consequences (there are so many historical examples but I don’t want to be overly political).
Even as parents, we often have to make decisions of how often and for what reasons we intervene in sibling rivalries and fights. If we make ourselves the constant referee between every disagreement, kids don’t learn to solve their own problems. Sometimes the best choice is to do nothing and let them figure it out for themselves.
Before you end this exercise with your kids, consider if there is a situation in your family’s life that requires a decision of getting involved or not. If appropriate, talk to your kids about how you came to make a decision. Finally, have your kids think about “how do I know if my actions will help more than they will hurt?” Have them come up with a list of questions they might ask themselves in tricky situations. Here is a start:
- Am I looking at the situation the same way as the other person? What might I be missing?
- What good and bad might come from intervening?
- What good and bad might come from doing nothing?
Good luck out there. Whether you are killing spiders or saving them, hopefully your kids have some additional tools to help them consider potential consequences of their good intentions.