Last week I wrote about my son Peter's amazement at discovering an honest person who had found his lost wallet and returned it to him, with money and gift cards intact. Although I was happy for Peter, it was a sad commentary on the times that he had assumed the wallet was gone for good.
I thought about Peter's experience in connection with the financial scandals that have plagued corporations and markets over the past few years. Kids are an impressionable lot. Even if you don't discuss the Enron affair at the dinner table, they're bound to pick up on news events and bound to be affected by ethical breaches and lowered standards of behavior.
As far as corporations are concerned, I think they'll do what it takes to clean up their act. Financial markets live and die by preserving the public trust. When they go astray, public outrage inevitably pushes them back onto the straight and narrow.
As for children, it's up to parents to keep them on the straight and narrow. That means raising kids with a well-developed sense of right and wrong and a healthy fear of getting caught.
As Peter's experience showed, small lessons can make a big difference in developing a kid's sense of ethics. For example, if you don't want an after-hours trader in the family, don't look the other way when your children pilfer grapes in the produce department. Don't do their homework for them to get them better grades.
Don't raid the supply closet at work to keep them in pens and Post-it notes. Don't cheat on your taxes — or theirs. When they find something that's been lost, whether it's a wallet on the bus or a beach towel at the pool, tell them to turn it in.
You can't peer over their shoulders all the time, but you can make them feel guilty when they stray — even after they grow up. Shortly after Peter's experience, I went to a local stationery store to buy cards and a Christmas ornament. When I got home, I realized that the clerk had forgotten to ring up the $17 ornament. I could have been home-free. The store hadn't noticed its mistake, and I didn't have a child with me for whom to set a good example.
But I couldn't forget how "cool" Peter thought it was to find an honest person. The next day I went back to the card shop and paid up.
Have a question about kids and finances for Dr. Tightwad? Write to Dr. T at 1729 H St., N.W., Washington, DC 20006. Or send the good doctor an e-mail message (and any other questions for this column) to firstname.lastname@example.org.