The Garbage Can Mental Model

Teaching my daughter how a garbage can works has been more challenging than I thought.

The daughter is a messy eater, and I’ve been trying to teach her to clean up after herself after eating dinner. Today, after her customarily messy dinner, I’m determined to make her clean up her own mess.

I take a paper towel, and hand it to her. She considers it momentarily, and after deciding that she can’t eat it, tries to hand it back to me.
“No, Wipe the table. Like this.”, I show her, guiding her hand and cleaning up the mess she’s created on her high chair table. She seems to be enjoying it, although it is debatable if she’s actually cleaning the mess or just spreading it more evenly across the table. After about a minute of this, the paper towel has absorbed at least some of the mess. OK, so far looking good.

“OK, now we throw it in the garbage”, I say, trying to take the paper towel from her hand. As I extend my arm to take the messy paper towel from her, she pulls it away from me.

“NO”, she says emphatically.

“Give it here. We’ll throw it in the garbage!” I say, more aggressively trying to grab it from her hand. She responds by clutching the paper towel more tightly. “Why do you want it so bad?” she’s probably thinking. “It’s a pretty valuable paper towel if daddy wants it so bad. I should hold on to it.” goes her logic.

“This is silly. Just give it to me!” I say as I move to snatch it away from her. In the 500 milliseconds it takes for me to extend my hand and try to grab the paper towel from her death grip, the daughter inhales sharply and lets out a loud, sharp, and penetrating screech that evolution probably originally designed to repel attacking lions or something, but this 18-month old has re-purposed to signal irrevocable ownership of objects.

I instinctively step back. I take a deep breath and consider my options at this point. I recall reading in a parenting book that instead of snatching something from a kid, you should distract the kid with something else, and then have the kid voluntarily give it to you. I decide to try this.

I go and get some of her favorite toys.

“Look! Here’s Sophie the Giraffe. Take it and give daddy the paper towel.” I say encouragingly.
She looks at it, considers the trade I’m offering and declines it with a firm “No”.
“OK, how about Yoda? Give me the paper towel, you will” I say in my Yoda voice. She likes the Yoda doll more than the giraffe, so she must at least consider this deal, I think.
“NO” she says, gripping the dirty paper towel ever more tightly.

Ok, time to bring out the big guns. I bring out her Mini Mouse Car, which she loves more than anything. “Here, take this” I say, offering it to her encouragingly.

And then it hits me.

Like a contestant on the Antiques Roadshow, the daughter has been trying to value this novel paper towel that she has chanced upon, and I’ve been providing increasingly valuable offers to her denominated in the only currency she understands — Toys. “You’re offering the Mini Mouse Car in exchange for this paper towel? This must be some magic paper towel!” she’s probably thinking. In the matter of just a few minutes, this dirty paper towel has gone from irrelevant to her most valuable possession. The way she’s tightly holding on to it — with both hands now — confirms this theory for me.

Oh God. What have I done?

She holds on to the dirty paper towel for the rest of the night. I consider just snatching it away, but decide against assigning even more value to it. She holds on to it all the way, taking it with her to bed.

I have to tip-toe in after she’s fast asleep and extract it from her crib.

I need a better strategy.


The next day, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to de-value the paper towel, and the answer comes to me from an unlikely source — Central Banks — specifically a strategy used by central banks around the world that continuously devalues their currency: Inflation.

I’m going to inflate the crap out of these paper towels.

So, that night, after dinner, I take an entire roll of paper towels. I handed her one paper towel after another, as she cleaned her table and tried to hoard them. She quickly ran out of hands and pockets to keep these additional paper towels, and I kept handing her more. She quickly realized that these paper towels aren’t that valuable after all. Kids have a real intuition for macroeconomic monetary policy, I think.

After my initial success, I moved on to the next phase — Getting her to throw the dirty paper towels in the garbage can.

I asked her to pick up her paper towel, and directed her to walk towards the kitchen sink, under which is the garbage can. She complied, walking over her paper towels.
“Open the cabinet”, I said, pointing to it. The daughter opened the cabinet and came face to face with what I later realized was her first garbage can.

Now, in my three-and-a-half decades of experience using garbage cans, the mental model I had for these was that of the event horizon around a black hole. Once you throw refuse into a garbage can and it passes through the event horizon and into the can, it’s gone for good. Garbage put inside the can will never ever come out again. With the power of hindsight, I now realize that this mental model did not pass on through my genes to my daughter.

She stared at the garbage can, eyes wide open, seeing a collection of incredible treasures just sitting there, well within grasp. Foremost of this treasure that attracted her attention was a chocolate wrapper, contents of which she had devoured earlier in the day. To her eyes, there was a non-zero probability that the wrapper had spawned another chocolate inside of it.

By the time I realized all this, her tiny hand had crossed the event horizon of the garbage can, locked on to the chocolate wrapper, and pulled it out and back into reality.
As this horrific scene unfolded and I came to terms with the violation of what I thought was the one-way principle of garbage cans, I screamed out “No! Drop that!” towards her. Sensing the upcoming conflict, the daughter took her newly acquired chocolate wrapper in one hand, the dirty paper towel in the other, and dashed away as fast as her two little legs could carry her.

I tried to catch her, but she managed to put significant distance between her and me. After reaching a safe distance, she stopped and turned around.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I said, horrified.
As if to taunt me, the daughter held out her two tiny hands, showing off her two prized trophies proudly.

Our eyes lock. I try to will her into dropping the garbage and coming back to me. Her eyes return the stare, with a firm resolve that indicates she’s going to see this face-off until the bitter end.

I look over to the wife to see if she has any advice for me, but she has her phone out and is taking a picture. To the iPhone, this picture probably looks like a scene from a western movie, with two determined rivals facing off, both on the precipice of unleashing a sudden attack on the other.

You can guess how the rest of the night plays out. I avoid doing anything to escalate her grasp on the garbage, and she refuses to give either of it up.

That night, I tiptoe into her room and retrieve two pieces of garbage from her hands. Despite being a 100% increase since yesterday, I think we’re actually making progress.


The next day, I decide that today’s tactics are going to focus on the garbage can.

After dinner, we repeat the multiple-paper-towels strategy from yesterday, but today I also start cleaning with several paper towels myself. The daughter loves this — She loves copying what I do, and so we’re both wiping the table with paper towels. After collecting several dirty paper towels between us, we walk over to the garbage can, me with considerable trepidation, and the daughter with excited anticipation.

I am prepared today — The garbage can is empty, so as to avoid any unnecessary temptations. The daughter opens the cabinet door, and is somewhat disappointed that there is no garbage there to raid. I take the lead by throwing my dirty paper towels into the garbage can and indicating that she do the same.

The daughter looks at me, spends a few seconds considering if this is a trap, but ultimately decides to follow my lead and throws her paper towel in the garbage can as well.

I am overjoyed! YES! Success!

A wave of love comes crashing over me, and I swell up with pride. I pick her up, swing her around and give her kudos and kisses. She’s very happy too, and starts clapping to applaud herself. I’ve managed to teach her to throw garbage into the garbage can, fulfilling my primary parental duty of passing on wisdom I’ve collected over all these years.

My daughter has learned how to use the garbage can! I couldn’t be prouder!