The Tragedy of the Commons

I want to talk to you guys about a concept, especially as your kids are getting older, that you’re going to face, and that there’s a very particular way that you need to address it. And that is this idea of the tragedy of the commons. I don’t know if you guys know about this idea, this is the way it’s talked about sort of sociologically, but it’s something that you see all the time. And that is that if no one owns it, then we all just trash it. If you went to college, probably your experience of there was literally a common room. I know that in our dorm, there was one of these common rooms that nobody was really responsible for cleaning and it just got destroyed. And so that’s what happens oftentimes, when nobody feels ownership. Now, as your family grows and your kids get older, what starts to happen is that all the common spaces in the house start to fall victim to this idea.

People just start leaving plates out in the kitchen. Kids just leaving toys all over the house. Nobody really owns any spaces, and so you just watch things devolve. Oftentimes the person in the family, sometimes it’s the mother or the father, usually not one of the kids, that’s most frustrated by the lack of cleanliness or all the clutter, will end up doing 90% of the work. And as you get more and more kids and they get more and more sloppy, this problem just devolves into a nightmare. So how do you handle this? And so the way that you handle the tragedy of the commons is you must create a system of accountability and there’s lots of ways to do this. We’re not going to give you just one way. There’s a lot we share in the 31 Creative Ways book, a bunch of systems we have. A couple of examples for things that we do.

The kitchen is often the best place to go, to kind of try to address this problem. And so we have this thing called the kitchen blitz board, which is that every single week, we expect each of our kids to randomly just clean the entire kitchen. And if they don’t by the time our family meeting happens on Sunday morning, they put $5 in the fund jar, and then we take that out. What’s really obvious when you look at that kitchen blitz board, exactly who is causing the family team to suffer because of the tragedy of the commons, because you can just see the check marks by the names of the kids who are cleaning the kitchen and the lack of those who aren’t. So there’s real clear accountability. We always know when it’s not happening, we know who is not doing it. We can hold that child or that person accountable. And me and April, sort of subject ourselves to this as well.

That’s just one example. You have to create systems of accountability to address this problem. And a lot of times it’s better coming from the dad than just from the mom. You want to sit down as a family team or with your spouse, create a system for whatever part of the house is causing this sort of chaos. Another example is that April, my wife, has set up zones of the house and during our work block once a week, each of the kids knows that, “Okay, my zone is the living room and the entryway.” So all of that stuff, it’s really clear whose zone that is. Again, taking what is ambiguous, what is common and making… It’s really holding specific members of the family accountable for addressing the chaos that’s erupting in that particular area of the house.

This has been a game changer for us. We can host a lot more. We can feel so much more comfortable, feeling like a team. Nothing makes you feel less like a team than when you know that your kids or your spouse or somebody, or you, are not pulling your weight, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Super frustrating, super predictable, happens in every house at some point. And it needs to be addressed. But yeah Jeff, what are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, I would just add one more small thing that might be helpful for toddlers. That’s the season we’re in. I mean, we have three kids, but kind of only two that can kind of pull weight right now at some level. And what I’ve noticed that’s helpful is sometimes when I just say, “Hey guys, work as a team to clean up that room,” or something, that doesn’t always get the job done as well as when I assign a micro role. And what I mean by that is just, kind of give more structure for just that cleanup moment, if that makes sense. So it’s like, “Hey, I need the play room cleaned up.” So I’ll say like, “Hey Kensley, you’re in charge and you kind of lead your brother in doing that.” And sometimes I’ll even reverse it, “Hey Cannon, I want you…” Basically, one of you is responsible.

And so then I want you guys to communicate how that’s going to facilitate how that’s going to get done. And that just leads to a lot of different things. They do it better sometimes. I think it leads to just better teaching moments in general when someone doesn’t, right? Because then there’s a clear kind of chain in that moment. So that’s just a small little hack I’ve tried to use. And I’ve noticed that we have to give a little bit more structure in the toddler way, or just a little bit more roles in the toddler way to say, “Hey, you’re in charge of just in this moment, just for five minutes and you’re responsible. I want you to be the one that comes and tells me to kind of inspect,” if that makes sense, and pass the test and all that.

And that’s way better than just like, “Okay, you guys do it,” and then it’s done, and then it’s not all the way done. And then what they both do at that moment is then say like, “Oh, well, I thought she was going to do that. Or he was going to do that.” You know what I mean? And so that’s basically a small little way to do that.

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