Sarah’s mom agreed to let her 16-year-old go to a party if she promised to be home by midnight. But as the Cinderella hour approached, Sarah did a quick risk/reward calculation. She knew her mom would be angry and probably ground her, but she was having so much fun she decided it was worth it. Sure enough, when she got home at 2:00, her mom was waiting for her, enraged that Sarah had violated her promise but relieved she was safe.
“Breaking your word was bad enough,” her mom said, “but how could you be so cruel and selfish to not call and say you were safe? I was worried sick.”
Sarah finished off an evening of bad choices with another: “You forced me into agreeing. The curfew was unfair. As to your worrying, that was your choice. I was perfectly safe. Just tell me the punishment and let me go to bed.”
This is ugly.
Sarah’s first mistake was to think she had a right to break her promise because she was “forced” into it. Mom’s proposition was “Deal or no deal?” Sarah made a deal and, like it or not, she was morally bound to keep her word.
Her second mistake was to think she could buy off the moral duty to keep her promise simply by accepting punishment. Her mom’s trust wasn’t mended because Sarah paid a penalty. Ultimately, the issue was not about curfews and parties; it was about trust and credibility. Her lack of remorse and accountability only made things worse, critically damaging her relationship with her mom.
Her third mistake was to think, despite her refusal to accept responsibility for inflicting mental anguish on her mom, she wasn’t responsible. She was. If she bothered to think about it, Sarah knew her conduct would cause gut-wrenching worry, every bit as painful as a punch to the stomach. A person is ethically accountable for the predictable consequences of their actions.
In a nutshell, Sarah did not act with character. She was untrustworthy, irresponsible, disrespectful, and unkind. It will take her a long time to build the healthy bonds of trust that both she and her mom want and need.
This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.