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Is It a Case Of Ethics Or Courage? - 12/12/2008

I recently read an article by Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist”, in the New York Times Magazine, which I’d like to share with you.  Essentially, the article went like this:

“Lazy Paperboy.  Our son, 17, has a weekly paper route.  He is supposed to deliver on a particular day but, sometimes, takes until the weekend.  His boss doesn’t know this, because the subscribers, few of whom pay for this neighborhood paper, don’t complain.  We find out son’s behavior inexecusable and have talked to him about advertisers who hurt when he is late.  But a parent’s words don’t carry the weight of an employer’s.  Is it ethical to report this to his boss?    Name withheld, Seattle.”

Mr. Cohen’s reply was,  “‘Inexecusable’ is a florid designation if that is how you calibrate your moral judgements, what word would you use if your son plants explosives on the moon and threatens to blow it to bits unless earth delivers a zillion dollar ransom?  You should not phone his boss.  As parents of an older teenager, your primary obligation is to teach him proper conduct, not to police the prompt delivery of something Pennysaver-ish.  Your son’s performance is lackluster, but any good that comes from your tattling will be outweighed by his resulting resentment.  If subscribers tend to keep the paper around for a week, it hardly matters if that week begins on a Thursday or a Sunday, unless the advertisers are promising transient events (one day only), or highly perishable items (fresh shrimp ‘n’ mayonnaise!).  And it is edifying to grant a 17-year-old the autonomy to fail and face the consequences (if his boss becomes more alert).”  

Well, I don’t know about that.  The answer is, without a doubt, well written.  I wish I could write that well.  But something is lacking.  I don’t know exactly when the cut-off date is for taking responsibility for a son’s behavior, but I do know that the behavior exhibited by that young man was more than lackluster.  To that extent, Randy Cohen and I totally agree. But, I’d like to look at the problem from a different point of view.    For example, you take your 7-year-old son to the grocery store with you.  You  diligently search for tomato sauce while he sits in the grocery cart at the end of the aisle, within an arm’s reach of an inviting basket of wrapped caramels.  You later pay the cashier for your purchase, then, while walking to your car, you see him pulling caramels from his pocket.  There is no question about ethics or morals.  The caramels weren’t samples that were free to partake of, they were there to be purchased.  His behavior had to be looked upon as petty thievery.  In order to teach him right from wrong and show him that there is a consequence for his behavior, you turn your cart around, return to the store and have him tell someone - a sales person, the store manager, the cashier - “I’m sorry I took these caramels and I’d like to return them.”   Embarrassing?  Yes.  A difficult lesson?  Absolutely.  But, without  a doubt, a necessary behavior.  It doesn’t matter that the cost of the candy could only have been pennies.   

How does that differ from the behavior exhibited by the 17-year-old in the article?  Their son collected money for a job he did not do.  His behavior was dishonest.  What, then, accounts for the difficulty in dealing with his behavior forthrightly?  Not ethics.  The ethics are apparent.  But, perhaps, the courage of the parent to confront the 17-year-old and to risk the possibility of eliciting his resentment.  For me, as a parent and a clinical psychologist in private practice, it seems straightforward that their son’s behavior necessitated a reaction from them.  One, possibly, they should have given much earlier in his life.  In this instance, it’s apparent that they were aware of the problem.  What they needed to question is  why they didn’t react.   Was it ethics or fear?  It’s a difficult decision, one I wouldn’t want to be faced with, because we all want our children to love us, respect us and, certainly, not to resent us.  But, sometimes, we have to set an example.  We have to stand up for what we know is right.  We have to dexclare that bad behavior is bad behavior, no matter what age and no matter that we’re only dealing with a day-late newspaper, fresh shrimp ‘n’ mayonnaise not withstanding.  

Randy Cohen, I love your article.  I admire the way you write.  But, in this instance, I beg to differ with your response.  Parents and people have to learn to have the courage of their convictions and to do more than voice their dissatisfaction.   It’s time that each of us stand up for what we believe and take action.  Not doing so doesn’t stem from confusion between what’s right or wrong.  Instead, more often than not, lack of action is the result of our acting out of our fears.   I’m not sure who said it, but I’ve always admired the saying, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for enough good people to do nothing.”

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