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October 03, 2011
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Home » No Allowance for Responsibility: A Childhood Dilemma

My wife had taken our two younger children out to run a few errands leaving me with our oldest boy. A little while after they left, he came up to me saying he had a surprise for me: he'd emptied the dishwasher. He's six. He'd done it all by himself without me asking him or showing him how.

That night, my sister-in-law came over for dinner and I proudly shared this little tidbit, hoping to reinforce the behavior with some public praise. My sister-in-law immediately said to him, "You should ask for an allowance. You should get paid."
Hold on. What? Nobody pays me to empty the dishwasher. I bought the darn thing, plus all the dishes, and all the food that made them dirty in the first place, and now I'm supposed to pay this kid to empty it? And who's side is she on anyway? What happened to parental solidarity? We need to present a united front!
Once I'd settled down and starting to think about this a bit more, it really bothered me. Not just in the microcosm of my own home but in the macro of our society. Wasn't the dishwasher a perfect analogy for the tragedy of the commons? Isn't this the relentless pursuit of self-interest coming into conflict with the common good?
In Caritae in vitae, Pope Benedict XVI writes, "Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good... It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it." It's not that I object to paying for services. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist and free-marketeer. I object to freeloading. My son is a freeloader. He gets all the benefits of society and pays none of the price. In fact, under my sister-in-law's logic, he'd actually get paid while freeloading. That's not capitalism. That's some kind of twisted socialism. 
Not in my house!
I recall reading a study a few months ago (apologies for not having the citation) indicating that when we pay children to read books, they become fixated on the payment, choosing shorter books to speed up cash flow. They focus on the income and not on the asset of the knowledge the book imparts.
I find this analogous to the obsession with "business cases" for Corporate Responsibility. Most often the question comes back to, "how does this add to the bottom line?" Wrong question. Or rather, wrong financial report. As my friend Stephen Jordan at the US Chamber's Business Civic Leadership Center recently pointed out, instead of looking at the income statement, look at the balance sheet. For large companies on average 70% of their assets are "intangibles," i.e., good will and brand.
The business case exists for Corporate Responsibility and it's on the balance sheet, not the income statement. Those intangible assets -- are built on the store of good will society allocates the company for the social good it does. That's right, I said it: the social good they do. Too often we separate the "business" from the "social good" ignoring one glaring fact: every company exists to fulfill a social good. The food you eat, the car you drive, the clothes you wear -- every product or service you use and consume are social goods. If they didn't have a social value, we wouldn't pay for them.
Companies, therefore, have an obligation to minimize any negative impact they have in providing their social goods and ideally to maximize the positive impacts. That's really what Corporate Responsibility is all about. 
When we create this artificial distinction between social goods and business, we lose the point: we focus on the payment and not the book. And I think as a parent I inculcate this artifice if I pay my kid an allowance for holding up his part of the common good at home. I'm letting him focus on the income and not the asset he builds in generating good will by holding up his end of the social contract. Remember: he was totally willing to do his part for the sake of doing his part... until my sister-in-law opened her big mouth. Fortunately, he's got a short memory and is back to emptying the dishwasher just because that's what we do as part of the family.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Debate with me at the COMMIT!Forum September 26-27 in New York City:
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