The sun was shining, my stomach was full of picnic food, and from my park bench I could comfortably watch the 6-year-old boy I was tending. It was an ideal situation.
He was enjoying the park playground, running from the swings to the monkey bars to the slides. He eventually landed on the merry-go-round -- that circular disc with bars for kids to cling to as it spins around like a top. Kids think it's the best ride in the world, right up until the time they become parents and start to realize what could happen to limbs and faces and other body parts if a kid tumbles off, or gets mashed under it, or is thrown up on by another kid.
Practically every person has merry-go-round memories. They must be at least partially good or those whirling discs of danger would have disappeared from playgrounds years ago.
Anyway, he was spinning around, hanging on tightly to one of the bars. And spinning around. And around. And finally I thought, Why isn't he helping push? I noticed about half the kids were, and half the kids weren't. So I motioned him over. He came reluctantly, because all that spinning was much more fun than anything else, including talking to me. I asked him one question: "Why aren't you pushing too?"
He stared at me for a moment. I saw the message click in his brain. And then he dashed back to the merry-go-round, but this time not to climb on. He grabbed one of the bars and started running with it, kicking up dust as he went. He did not jump on for quite a while. He was too busy making the disc go around, and his grin was much larger than the giddy look he'd sported earlier as a passive rider.
The sun sank, dusk came, and I finally called him to head home with me. As we walked across the park, I asked him if he liked pushing.
"It was kind of hard in flip-flops (I'd forgotten about his footware) but I liked it anyway," he said.
He paused, then added, "I wonder why some of those kids didn't help push. They just rode the whole time."
His wise little answer kind of startled me. There, in the park, I'd been trying mentally to solve a problem. I need to staff a volunteer organization, and good help is hard to find. It seems everyone is too busy or too comfortable. The incentive to shoulder what looks like a lot of work just for the personal satisfaction of doing a good deed is pretty low.
My musings included memories of serving on a city council and occasionally dealing with self-entitled folks who wanted a perfect world to live in, but didn't want to contribute in any way to make it happen.
My young friend interrupted my thoughts. "What would happen if everyone got on the merry-go-round and no one got off to push?" he said, half to himself, half to me.
"Well, what do you think would happen?" I asked
"Ummm ... I think kids would get mad. And then maybe someone would get off and push," he said.
"And what if just one person got off and pushed and no one else helped him?" I asked.
He shook his young head. "That wouldn't be very fair."
So a 6-year-old gets it. Things like merry-go-rounds and volunteer organizations and local governments just sit there until people grab hold and start pushing.
If no one helps, then everyone gets mad at no one in particular, and still nothing happens.
Not enough time, not enough incentive, and flip-flop footware aren't good excuses
Free riders are a tiresome burden to those who make the effort to set things in motion.
Just one person pushing while the rest ride along isn't "very fair."
Working hard to make things happen can actually be more rewarding than just going along for the ride.
And sometimes good people just need to be asked, "Why aren't you pushing too?"
You can contact D. Louise Brown at email@example.com.