A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


There was a lesson to be learned here. An important lesson. A life-changing lesson.

Only Jon was supposed to be doing the learning - not me.

It started last Friday. Ten-year-old Jonathan went to the store with his big sister Amy and talked her into "loaning" him enough money to buy a video game. That was a nice thing for Amy to do, and I was comfortable with the game. But I wasn't comfortable with the way Jon got it.

"Do you have the money to pay Amy back right now?" I asked.

"Well . . . no," Jon said. "But I'll have it when I get my allowance."

"But that won't be until the end of the month," I reminded him. "And that will pretty much wipe out your entire allowance. What are you going to do for money until August?"

"I don't know," Jon said. "I didn't think about that."

Ten-year-olds specialize in not thinking. And dads specialize in trying to help them think.

This seemed to be the perfect opportunity to teach Jon about how awful financial bondage can be, and how much better it is to save his money for the things he wants. Which is why I purchased Jon's debt from Amy, and then informed him that I was calling in his loan immediately.

"I don't have it," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "That's why I had to borrow it."

He didn't say "Duh!" - but he was thinking it.

So I took a moment to explain how debt works - and how I as the debt owner have the right to name the terms of payment. "If you don't have the money," I said ominously, "I will find other ways to get my money's worth out of you."

Jon's eyes grew wide, almost fearful. Deep down inside, he knew his father would never do anything to harm him. But he's also seen his Dad's "lessons" backfire before - like the time I tried to teach a lesson in appreciation by convincing the kids that the Russians had just taken over America and that everything would now be different. Our dinner that night was tuna straight out of the can, and we were supposed to be grateful for it. I don't know if I succeeded in teaching the lesson, but I know I succeeded in giving all of our children nightmares for a week.

And to this day, I don't think any of them will eat tuna - in the can or out.

Thankfully, there was nothing fishy about Jon's lesson. Instead, he was sentenced to spend the next day - Saturday - with me to pay off his debt.

I had a full day of sprinkler maintenance lined up, and he would be by my side doing . . . well, whatever I wanted him to do. For that day, I owned him. He was my gopher (you know, "go for this" and "go for that"), my digger and the one who ran into the sprinklers to make operational adjustments. It was a long day but he held up pretty well - and he managed to wrangle a new basketball out of me in the process.

But something happened during this hot, watery day. As Jon and I worked side-by-side we talked and laughed. We grew closer to each other with each new sprinkler head we installed. And by the end of the day father and son were both smiling.

"Today was fun," Jon said as I tucked him into bed that night. Then headed: "I mean, it was hard, and I learned about not going into debt and everything. But it was fun. Is that OK?"

I rubbed my hand through the bristle of his just-buzzed hair.

"Yeah, it's OK," I said. "Learning lessons can be fun."

"So can working," Jon said. "As long as you're doing it together."

Lesson learned - for both of us.

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--- © Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through