For the Greater Good

fire-bucket-brigadeI’m a parent. I’m supposed to be teaching my kids, guiding them, yet I’m continually humbled by how much I learn from them whenever I stop to watch and listen.

Recently we took a trip to the local science museum–because science is real, and fun, and interesting, and because my kids always do better in museums with hands-on experiments about centrifugal force than they do in museums with hands-off paintings on the wall. Nevertheless. Toward the end of the day we made our way to a large space dominated by a Rube Goldberg structure with balls and pulleys, chutes and ladders. More than anything, it looked like a life-size version of the game Mousetrap we used to play as kids. The true purpose of the From København to Singapore exhibit, which involved push and pull cargo ships and lots of plastic balls, was lost on me. But just by watching, I learned a lesson.

The space was packed. There were parents on the sidelines, some, like me, continually checking their phone for news about the downfall of western civilization. Ok, maybe that was just me. But those very adult worries were swallowed up by what was going on in the room. What was going on in the room was this: a room full of about forty kids–all working together–in order to make things happen.

There was a hodgepodge of languages, Danish, English, Spanish, Russian. There were toddlers pulling little cargo boats and kids in their early teens loading them up every time they ‘docked’. There were boys unloading and girls shoving more balls into the chutes to start the process all over again. And yet somehow these kids, who’d never spoken to one another or met one another, all worked together to move those balls from the København side of the room to the Singapore side. They were all working together for the greater good.

Kids seem to get this idea naturally. Never mind that the greater good in this case was a hands-on experiences in a science museum. You put a bunch of kids together in a room and give them a task, and more times than not, they’re going to figure out how to make it work. They don’t give a rat’s ass about what the kid next to them looks like or what language they’re speaking or whether they’re a boy with long hair or a girl with overalls on. You give them a job, and they figure it out. They’re not concerned with the who, only with the how.


The larger message wasn’t lost on me.

There used to be a lot more working together for the greater good, for a common goal. Sure, there are always those actively seeking to undermine others, just as there is always going to be the one kid who crosses his arms and refuses to budge until he gets a turn with the cargo ship. But overall, there was a sense that to keep things working the way they’re supposed to, whether it’s an exhibit in a science museum or a country, there has to be push and pull, loading and unloading toward a common goal.

After 9/11, as a New Yorker, I witnessed the real life version of that science exhibit. A city coming together for the greater good. First responders weren’t going to leave someone buried under the rubble because of their religion or because they didn’t have documentation. Blood banks weren’t going to turn away donors because they spoke a foreign language. In a time of crisis, we reverted back to the same instincts I saw in those children. We worked together for the greater good.

Something’s changed. A lot of things have changed. There’s no one thing to put your finger on, no smoking gun, no one cause and effect. But it’s impossible to deny that at the moment, we seem to have two distinct groups, both convinced they are acting for the greater good. But instead of actually moving those balls from København to Singapore, they’re actively working against one another until all we’re left with is a giant mess of balls in the middle of the room going nowhere fast.

women-wwiiI’m sure there were kids there yesterday who were tired of loading balls who wanted to steer a toy cargo ship. But the whole thing would have come to a standstill without everyone working together. Those kids instinctively knew that. They knew they couldn’t do it on their own. They couldn’t do it with only the people who looked like them or spoke the same language. If they did, the balls would stay in their chutes, on their own side. Blue with blue, orange with orange and never the twain shall meet. Going nowhere fast.

I don’t have any answers. But I’m starting to think I should just ask a room full of kids what they think we should do with this giant mess of balls we seem to be standing in the midst of.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Amazing. It’s awesome what children seem to understand at an instinctual level, and how it seems to get lost/pushed out along the way. They just figured out how to do it and how to go, and that’s awesome. I would’ve loved to have seen it.


    1. Dina Honour says:

      My kids usually have good lessons to teach me…in between annoying each other and clamoring for more iPad time. I just have to remember to slow down to learn them.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Dina Honour says:

      I just responded to someone else that sometimes it feels like it’s my job as a parent to kill the spirit within my kids. I know I need to guide them and instruct, but sometimes I feel like we lose sight of all that natural instinct in our quest to make them polite or respectful or a thousand other things. I guess it’s hard to say if the net gain from that puts us in the black…or in the red.


  2. What a great analogy! Loved this.


    1. Dina Honour says:

      Thank you! It was lovely to watch–and to once again realize how much I’m missing out on when I’m not paying attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The innocence of play is actually life writ small. There’s a development of purpose, a negotiation about how to share, taking turns at both the good and the not so good, and engagement. If we, as adults, stop insisting they follow a script (also known as rules of the game), we find that spontaneous play is a creative, self-generating activity that develops into roles and purpose and a very intricate and complex world. The very things we want our kids to have, isuch as curiosity, ability to figure things out, work through early failures (perseverance), team-work, independence, and the ability to negotiate, are all things that come out of unstructured, spontaneous play.

    Paradoxically, we put them into regimented programs where the self-organisation is actively discouraged, and we teach them lessons about conforming, fitting into a mold, behaving the way others expect… Which is probably good for assembly-line work but not helpful for intelligent inquiry and development of a sceptical mind.

    Kids have a sense of fairness, that can be quite surprising. It is also true that kids can be vicious, cruel, and mean. Those are the seeds all humans carry. And part of our work as parents is to ensure that those seeds don’t find fertile soil. On the other hand, the other seeds of caring, cooperation, empathy, love, initiative, curiosity, and humour are worth encouraging. It is up to us to place them in situations where the latter can germinate, grow and flower.

    I’ll argue we need more free-range kids and unstructured opportunities to explore, learn, question and do. Perhaps they will then grow up to know that it’s not the colour of the balls that’s important, it’s how we work and play together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dina Honour says:

      Those reasons you list? They are some of the things keeping us in Denmark for the time being, because the Danes appreciate them and nature them. And I am so grateful my kids are immersed in a culture that values working together for the greater good.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. shruti502 says:

    It must have been quite a sight witnessing all the significant values in action doing a common and greater good.I wish I could have been there!These little toddlers surely have a unique way of making us elders learn and grow with their acts.Thanks for sharing this.


    1. Dina Honour says:

      It was nice–but I had to beat myself over the head to remind myself to put down my phone and live in the present. So, in addition to witnessing the beauty of togetherness in front of me, I also remember what it was like to untether myself from the ‘real’ world for a little while. Both things were pretty extraordinary.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. shruti502 says:

        I can imagine that predicament!But certainly thank you for capturing them,they are so beautiful.


  5. Priya says:

    It’s as if kids have a certain basic common sense of what works and a quiet assurance and the adult world with all its fears and doubts undermines this common sense and shakes the assurance.


    1. Dina Honour says:

      As the mom of 2 boys, I know it’s my job to raise them to be functioning, contributing adults. But there are times when it feels like all I am doing is squashing the passion for life in them. We can learn a lot from them. If we pay attention.

      Liked by 1 person

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