The Interpretation of Values

Note the pen for size. This is not a huge bookshelf.

From the time they were young, my sons interpreted values in a way that suited them best.  In other words, they would take a values lesson and bend it so that it benefited only themselves.

For example, the “Golden Rule”.  Do unto others as you would have done to you.

Most of us interpret this to mean that we should be kind to others, because we want to be treated kindly.  And I do believe that is the intended message.

My children, however, had a completely different interpretation.  They believed that if someone hit you, it was because that person wanted to be hit, and so my sons would hit back.  They explained as much to me when I questioned them.  My heart sank.

“Turn the other cheek,” obviously means that person wants to be hit again on the other side.

These are not my values.  My values are kindness, charity when I can afford it, understanding, tolerance, and the ability to make room for people, even if that means walking away from a person or situation with which I disagree.  My values are to talk things out quietly, listen to one another, find a solution.

I have tried to redirect my son’s interpretations of values, so bring them more in line with my own.  They have resisted at every turn.  It is a rare occasion, and usually the younger son, when thoughtfulness for another person is displayed.  These are not children who gleefully give gifts as I do, more excited to see the look on someone’s face when opening a present than I am to receive a gift.  These are children who are constantly looking for the payoff, “What do I get?”

This month, my younger son asked his brother if he would personalize the bookshelf project the older brother had in class.  This immediately turned into a transaction.  The praise of the younger for the elder’s work was seen as an opportunity to exploit, whereas had I been my older son it would have been an opportunity to surprise my sibling on Christmas morning.  (They still celebrate Christmas, though this is not a “religious” holiday in our home.)  Prices were named, specifications were requested.  No longer was this appreciation and thankfulness, it was capitalism at its most base and vile.

Of course this went poorly.  When the elder completed the project and saw how the younger coveted the shelf, the price went up.  Possibly the price increase was linked to the desire for a new online game purchase price.  Conflict ensued, and escalated swiftly.  Previous debts were called, mathematical ability was called into question, and costs were calculated.

That’s the interesting part.  The elder son was calculating material and labor costs.  The fact is that he acquired none of those costs.  He made the bookshelf as a required project for class.  He had to make it.  He had to etch it, and it made no true difference what was etched, so his brothers request was free as well.  As to the cost of the oak, if anyone paid those it was me, in the form of “materials fees” charged by the school.  At that, it was less than $10, and the elder son was demanding over $30 for the finished project.

Calling in previous debts, the younger son calculated that he should have to pay only $5.50.

I honestly don’t know how this happened.

Where did I go wrong in teaching kindness, sharing, doing for others?  Is the fault mine or are these two particular brains wired in such a way that looking out for Number One is the only way to go?

Again, the younger son is less selfish, less likely to hold back when he could share.  Which is a problem when there is such a power imbalance; he will buy games for his brother with the promise of being paid back, but he never sees the money again.  The younger son worked all summer to build himself a little bank account, and it is mostly depleted with the purchase of games not only for himself, but also in the form of these consistently defaulted loans.  The problem is now how to reinforce the generosity and willingness to help, without teaching him to be a doormat.

Separately, I spoke to each boy.  They are teenagers now, entering society soon, and this is my last chance to try and get through to them.

To the seventeen year old, I explained my disappointment in his decision to sell what could have been a wonderful gift that would have been wildly appreciated.  Instead, it’s a point of contention, causing them both to be angry at one another.  I could not reach him, I was told that he was so angry now that the deal had been broken that he wanted to throw the shelf in a wood chipper.  Then he broke a highlighter by throwing it hard into the floor, and stormed upstairs to slam his door.  Twice.

I called the fifteen year old into my office for a lesson in price comparison and value.  We scanned the sites of custom bookshelves until we found one that was comparable in size.  Quality was questionable, it was most likely mass produced in China, but it was hand painted, and it was the right size.  It cost $20.08 on  I tried to make it clear this was not a lesson in bargaining with his brother, but rather in understanding purchase price and value before buying anything.  He nodded a lot, said, “So, $20 would have been a fair price,” and left.

Communication is 50% interpretation.

I can’t tell you if anyone learned anything.
I can tell you what I hope would happen.  I would like my children to feel compelled by love and compassion to give gifts to one another this month.  I would like to see that shelf wrapped up under the tree, to be opened by my younger son.  I would like the gift inside to foster a sense of thankfulness as well as gratefulness for having such a caring brother.
I would like the younger son to have purchased a gaming gift card for his older brother, and I would like this gift to foster a sense of thankfulness as well as gratefulness for having such a caring brother.  I would like that day to be peaceful, loving, appreciative, and wonderful.  I’d kind of like angels singing and holy light to shine through the windows too, but I won’t push my luck.


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