Dear Tom and Ray:
Am I a jerk or a genius? My son is now 18, and when he was 15, I wrote him a check for $1,500, postdated three years. I told him that if he managed to reach the date of the check without (1) receiving any tickets, (2) being involved in any accidents or (3) breaking any of our house driving rules, I'd cash the check for him. My goal was to provide an incentive for him to play by the rules long enough to form some good driving habits. Anyway, my son very nearly made it. A few months shy of his 18th birthday, he received a speeding ticket. He was cruising along the highway, singing. And he suddenly realized that the light show accompanying his karaoke act was being provided by the flashing lights on top of a cruiser. He fessed up about the ticket promptly, and was bemoaning the fine of $126. I gently reminded him that the ticket had actually cost him $1,626, as he had failed to fulfill our bargain. My question: Am I a genius for coming up with the carrot that made him a good driver during his crucial first years behind the wheel, or am I a jerk for piling on a $1,500 fine? Please note that his younger sister is watching carefully to see how this is resolved. She's 14, and whether I fold on this will go a long way in setting her expectations. My son took the news well, but I have friends who are treating me as though I smashed the kid's piggy bank and took his inheritance. Your take on this ethical dilemma? -- Ted
TOM: Are you a jerk or a genius? Well, it's possible to be both, Ted. I'd say you're definitely a genius. I think this is a brilliant way to encourage a kid to drive responsibly, and I'm all for anything that accomplishes that.
RAY: I agree. Clearly, it has worked. For nearly three years, the kid was careful, he avoided getting tickets, he avoided accidents and he lived by the rules of the household. Do you know how many insanely jealous parents are reading about this kid today?
TOM: So you definitely get points for parenting. Now, are you also jerk? Actually, I don't think so. The fact that you're asking us whether you're a jerk means you're not one. Because jerks, by definition, never think they're being jerks. So clearly, you sense, somewhere in that hard, little, dried-up stone of a heart you have, that you're being a little rough on the kid.
RAY: I understand the desire to teach your kids that "a deal is a deal." But it's also worth teaching them about fairness, flexibility and that there's value in trying hard, even if you don't always succeed. After all, your mission is essentially accomplished. After driving responsibly for his first three years, your son is unlikely to turn around now and go out and drive like a moron.
TOM: So I would extend your offer. Make it clear to him -- and to his younger sister -- that since he dutifully fulfilled the contract for most of the three years, you appreciate his effort and you want to offer him a chance to redeem himself.
RAY: Right. Tell him that if he maintains a clean record for an additional six months after the original deadline, you'll still cash the check for him. Or you'll cash a slightly smaller check -- say $1,400 -- for him. And you can make it clear to both kids that were it not for his excellent performance up until the speeding ticket, you wouldn't be offering him a second chance.
TOM: You can also make it clear that this is a one-time offer. That if he fails again, you intend to cash the check yourself and spend the money on that vibrating recliner you've had your eye on.
RAY: But you both deserve a lot of credit. You came up with a great idea, and your son has had the good sense to buy into the deal. Congratulations to both of you.