816 Diversions

Emily Parnell: Son’s mistake leads to moral dilemma

Life’s biggest lessons always seem to come out of the biggest mistakes, and the riskiest decisions. They’re the type of lesson that can pack a wallop — in growing pains, but also in richness of what we learn about ourselves and others.

I remember the night well. I’d allowed Cooper, who was on the tail end of 9 years old, to download the popular game, Clash of Clans, on my phone.

“Is it free?” I asked. I watched him download and install it, and saw that he would pay in the annoyance of having to see advertisements.

That evening, the game sucked him into its tiny world where he built his clan, storing goods and waging wars. He disappeared into his bedroom until I had decided enough was enough, and retrieved my phone.

Weeks later, the phone bill arrived. My heart palpitated upon seeing my bill was quadruple the normal amount. I immediately called. The customer service representative sympathetically informed me that $250 worth of in-app purchases — bags of virtual jewels to improve his game — had been purchased by my son during just an hour so of clan wars.

In that odd state of “I’m too mad to be anything but calm,” I informed my poor son of the price tag of his misdeed.

Shocked. Stricken. Panicked. Mortified. Those words begin to describe his angst. “That was real money?” he wailed. Today’s video games offer many opportunities to buy upgrades — using both fake “money” earned during the game or charging to a saved credit card — or in this case, my phone bill.

With dramatic flair, he announced, “I don’t deserve to live. You should kill me.” I denied that request, sure a less violent and more legal agreement could be reached. He returned to his bedroom, miserable. Soon, he came to me, clutching a wad of cash. Every last penny of his birthday money — a sum which only paid half his debt, was shoved in front of me. He then set to work cleaning and mowing. Finally, I told him his debt was paid, that I’d help with the rest. I pointed out that at least part of the blame fell on me as the responsible adult, and we could call it even.

Months passed. I contacted Clash of Clans, and their uber-friendly but completely unhelpful customer service people had me jumping through hoops, pledging their commitment to make me happy, yet I felt the money getting further and further away.

Then, one day I received an email from Google Play — the service through which the games were billed. It turns out that the Federal Trade Commission had my back, along with the backs of all the other families whose kids had racked up over $19 million in in-app purchases. According to the settlement, I would be refunded the entire amount.

Finally, my check arrived. Oh, wait, I say “my” check, but in reality, well over half of that money was my son’s, right? His birthday money. Arguably, he even earned a big chunk of the rest of it through housework. And after all, if the FTC didn’t think Google Play had a right to charge parents for in-app purchases made by their children, how could I argue that I had a right to charge my child for that same purchase?

What would we do? Four possibilities came to mind: 1) give the money back to him; 2) split it with him; 3) put it in his savings account but not tell him about it; 4) just keep it. He’d be none the wiser, right?

I decided to pose the question on Facebook. What would my friends do, and why?

It’s a risky proposition to ask the general population for parenting advice. Yet, if you have friends who can agree to disagree, you can see the matter from many different perspectives. It wasn’t so much that my husband and I couldn’t make a good decision, but more a matter of entertainment. A social experiment, even, in which I’d surely hear some good advice.

The discussion was lively. Schools of thought on discipline arose. What’s the priority, justice or the lesson? Is learning a lesson the by-product of the process, or is it tied to the consequence? Would we show weakness or grace by returning the money to him? Are we more concerned about teaching that we’re fully responsible for our errors, or by allowing silver linings?

In the end, a gentle reminder from my kids’ former principal provided direction. He reminded me that I’ve raised a great kid, and that given full information and the chance to decide, Cooper would make a good choice. It was a bit risky — to open the discussion and see how strong his morals had been woven. Shouldn’t the adults make the decision? But here was a man with far more experience growing kids than I will ever have. My husband and I would take the risk.

I explained the settlement — and that the billing had been deemed shady and unfair. I asked Cooper what he thought should be done with the money.

He thought quietly, then said, “I think you should keep it. I did something wrong, and I deserve a consequence.” (The sense of balance and justice is strong with that one.)

I must say, though, it does not sit well with me to not return that money. It belongs to him, fair and square. I don’t want him to grow up self-punishing, but I want him to maintain his integrity.

I recently found this definition of integrity: Doing the right thing, even when you don’t have to.

This was a test of both of our integrity. I didn’t have to give him the money — or even tell him about it. He certainly didn’t have to refuse it.

I will keep that money safe and sound. There are more lessons to be learned with that $250. I look forward to the day when there is something he wants, and I can hand it over to him, no strings attached. On that day, we can talk about the lessons of grace and forgiveness.

Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes weekly.