I waited until they were strapped into my car after school to spring the news on them. “Mom, can we go for frozen yogurt?” Levi, my 11-year-old, asked. “No, I’m so sorry sweetie,” I cooed, “We have some things to take care of at home today.” My statement hung in the air like a luminous storm cloud.
“Um…what things?” he asked. Hah! He took the bait. “Well,” I casually started, “We have some things that aren’t ours at home and we need to return them and apologize for their tardiness.” I then let the silence sink slowly into their realities. They perplexedly swore their innocence with the conviction of serial killers on death row.
Finally I dropped the other shoe. “When is the last time you boys went to the library?” “We haven’t been to the library in months,” Eli, my 7-year-old, proudly announced. “Uh oh,” murmured Levi. “We forgot to return our books didn’t we?” I reticently mumbled affirmatively and explained that they would need to find the books, take them back to the library, and personally apologize for their laziness. Then I addressed the matter of the fine.
“I am going to pay the fine because if I don’t we will be turned over to a collection agency who will stalk us, threaten to ruin our credit and torment us to the brink of insanity. Then, each of you will pay me back for your share of the bill. No one may set foot in a library until the fine is 100% paid. Clear?”
After the requisite agreements to my terms, Levi asked how much the fine was anyway. “$80,” I replied. Then, as you might expect, came the tears, the pleas for mercy, the imploring sob stories about how long it took to save up that much money. But I was the picture of perfect maternal moderateness. I never flinched, never wavered, never even suffered a moment of my usual neurotic self-doubting. I knew this was a lesson that would pay off down the road and I was teaching it with aplomb.
We found the books and the boys hesitantly went into the library to explain their plight to the kindly librarian at the checkout desk. She feigned a stern reproach and then thanked the boys for their honesty and courage. At home, I collected $40 from each of them. I will admit to feeling a great deal of shame upon prying open my little one’s basketball bank and scooping out every last nickel and dime he had to cover his loss. Levi, on the other hand, brought me a wad of crunched up singles, a few fives and a twenty dollar bill he’d been saving since his birthday in September.
Now, if you’ve never had to take money from your children, let me tell you, it is not an enjoyable task. You feel low, dirty and basically like you’re some kind of hopped up addict who needs to steal from her kids in order to score her next fix. It’s ugly, even when you’re doing it for the right reasons. But I pushed through because I knew that in the long run, this was a lesson in responsibility I did not want to be teaching with much higher stakes five years in the future.
All of this would have been a great maternal success story had it not been for one thing. I called this morning to give the collection agent at the library my credit card number. But I’d been empowered to beg for financial mercy myself by a friend whose daughter had lost a library book once. She told me that there was actually wiggle room when it came to library fines.
I pleaded my case to the grandmotherly librarian on the phone. She explained that she couldn’t erase my fine. But she offered me a significantly lower option that I immediately agreed to. Without getting into specifics, and I don’t want to encourage other violators to take advantage of the kind-hearted folk who work at our public libraries, but let’s just say that Andrew Jackson was happy to help me out and foot this bill entirely.
So here’s the question; do I tell the kids I only had to pay a fraction of the fine? Or do I keep their hard-earned allowance money to drive home a lesson that will serve them well in the future? This truly is a conundrum. Keeping the money would be like making a profit off my children. That definitely cannot be right. But giving it back makes the consequence too lackluster and teaches them that there are always ways to squirm out of taking responsibility.
Why is it that the one time I’m actually certain about my convictions, someone does something kind and admirable and I’m right back in the midst of self-doubt, confusion and parental anxiety? Somehow this just doesn’t seem fair.
Please, tell me what to do!