I heard a story today about how T. Boone Pickens, when 11 years old and delivering newspapers, found the wallet of someone on his route. He returned the wallet to his customer, Mr. White, who not only thanked him but rewarded him with a dollar bill — a healthy reward for an 11 year old boy in 1939. After all the papers had found their porches, he returned home to tell his mother and grandmother the story of Mr. White’s reward. Instead of sharing his excitement, they shook their heads. Little T (I’m guessing that’s what he went by back then) was confused and asked why they seemed unhappy about his story. He was told that he needed to return the dollar because “you shouldn’t get rewarded for honesty.”
It strikes me that this would not be the typical statement of parents and grandparents today. We have a tendency in present day society to want to reward behavior. Perhaps its an underlying, societal Skinnerian buy-in that rewarding good leads to more good. And while you may wish to refer to The Problem With Incentive Trusts for a related discussion in the context of trust planning, a question to ask is whether rewarding virtuous character cheapens, and therefore weakens, that very same character. The Pickens family seemed to think so.
I will not claim to have a complete answer on this subject — and am very eager to hear what your perspective might be — but I believe there is an element of wisdom in making virtuous character an expectation, and treating it as a reward in and of itself. Doing so likely affirms the child’s (or grandchild’s or other’s) ability to attain the desired goal. Perhaps rewarding the goal with financial or other rewards might give the message that the individual in question would not attain the desired attribute apart from the reward?
My wife and I had a somewhat parallel discussion a number of years ago on the topic of chores that our children were to do around the house. We took the view that there are certain expectations in the Shiller household that are not compensable — you do them because you are part of the family. We weren’t taking a particularly principled stand on this point, but we did not want to give the message that you could choose to give up a dollar and leave your clothes on the bedroom floor. Whether this has enhanced our children’s tidiness around the house is somewhat questionable, but I do believe that our approach and the way we have consistently communicated it over the years has added at least a bit to our family’s sense of community.
So what do you think? Should T. Boone Pickens have kept Mr. White’s dollar?
Great post Mark.