COMMENTARY: Deal or No Deal?

Sarah’s mom agreed to let her 16-year-old go to a party if she promised to be home by midnight. But as the Cinderella hour approached, Sarah did a quick risk/reward calculation. She knew her mom would be angry and probably ground her, but she was having so much fun she decided it was worth it. Sure enough, when she got home at 2:00, her mom was waiting for her, enraged that Sarah had violated her promise but relieved she was safe.

“Breaking your word was bad enough,” her mom said, “but how could you be so cruel and selfish to not call and say you were safe? I was worried sick.”

Sarah finished off an evening of bad choices with another: “You forced me into agreeing. The curfew was unfair. As to your worrying, that was your choice. I was perfectly safe. Just tell me the punishment and let me go to bed.”

This is ugly.

Sarah’s first mistake was to think she had a right to break her promise because she was “forced” into it. Mom’s proposition was “Deal or no deal?” Sarah made a deal and, like it or not, she was morally bound to keep her word.

Her second mistake was to think she could buy off the moral duty to keep her promise simply by accepting punishment. Her mom’s trust wasn’t mended because Sarah paid a penalty. Ultimately, the issue was not about curfews and parties; it was about trust and credibility. Her lack of remorse and accountability only made things worse, critically damaging her relationship with her mom.

Her third mistake was to think, despite her refusal to accept responsibility for inflicting mental anguish on her mom, she wasn’t responsible. She was. If she bothered to think about it, Sarah knew her conduct would cause gut-wrenching worry, every bit as painful as a punch to the stomach. A person is ethically accountable for the predictable consequences of their actions.

In a nutshell, Sarah did not act with character. She was untrustworthy, irresponsible, disrespectful, and unkind. It will take her a long time to build the healthy bonds of trust that both she and her mom want and need.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 5

  1. This was a very good essay. However, it does not consider those aspects of Sarah’s mother’s character, which would allow her to forgive Sarah, reason with her more, and give her a second chance.

    1. The focus of the essay is exactly where it should be…on Sarah’s character! Forgiveness is perhaps a follow-up essay. Based on the info given thus far, there is NO forgiveness because Sarah has provided NOTHING for her mother to forgive. She has not apologized nor apparently feels any remorse for her words and actions. Forgiveness requires that there is repentence (feels remorse for her actions and changes direction/current path). With this accountability for her actions, forgiveness would then follow. However, it does not change the consequence of Sarah’s action which is that she will need to act respectfully and responsibly to rebuild trust. My concern with your comment is reinforcement of a victim mentality by putting focus on the mom when it is clearly the issue of Sarah that must be addressed if we are to build of world of quality character.

    2. There’s also an element of wisdom here. Parents/elders generally have it while teens generally don’t. So parents set limits they know are necessary to safeguard the unwise from predictable harm.

      Sarah not only betrayed trust, she acted in a way that led to death for many of her equally irresponsible predecessors. Her mom now has a horrible choice between draconian restrictions that will drive her daughter away and giving up, which may lead to permanent consequences for Sarah.

      All of that is Sarah’s fault.

  2. As a parent, we are responsible for guiding our children. They are not wise or experienced. They are learning. Part of learning is understanding the consequences of our actions. Most kids are going to make poor choices at some point. Peer pressure, having fun, wanting to fit in or just feeling rebellious can all lead to poor choices. Kids sometimes see “agreements” as the beginning of the “negotiations” instead of the end result. They are often testing their boundaries. As a parent, this can be frustrating and disappointing.

    As a kid (once upon a time), I did the same things – made poor choices. I pushed the boundaries hard and was defensive. What worked for me was a combination of love and consequences. Mom reminded me that she was worried about me because she loves me. She also reminded me that deliberately breaking agreements/promises meant I could not be trusted to keep future agreements/promises until I had proven myself trust worthy.

    At the same time, providing a consistent environment of listening without judgement, helps kids feel like they can share what they are feeling….which helps them cope with the bombardments of emotions they are dealing with (I remember what I felt as a kid). A parent can better deal and understand what they know then try to base their actions on guesses. We are here to keep them from as much harm as we can, but we also need to teach them how to make good choices for themselves.

    As far as this particular situation, as a kid, I learned that if I called and asked for an additional hour, sometimes it would be granted. It was a compromise and a win – with trust intact. As a parent, I have taught my kids that asking is always a better choice, with chances of a better outcome, even if it doesn’t always work, to lying or disregarding agreements.

    I think being a kid today is so much harder then it was when I was growing up. They deal with serious issues at a much younger age that can have severe consequences. We need to make sure we are (a welcome) part of their lives so we can be involved in their choices – helping them to navigate the choppy waters and learn to make better choices. They may not like the discipline that comes with making poor choices, but if they understand they are loved and the consequences are fair and deserved, they just might get it.

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