September 6, 2013 7:37 pm

Message in a (gin) bottle

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things that any parent or business boss has to do
Illustration by James Ferguson of a gin bottle with the message 'Sorry Mum'©James Ferguson

I am not an actuary, but I often ponder the odds of something happening (or not). Maybe it is a legacy of that lengthy portion of my university education dedicated to game theory, but whenever I consider any decision, my thought process looks at the probability of any outcome, good or bad.

This is true at home – if I don’t repaint the windows this year, what are the chances that we have a bad winter, and that by next year I will end up having to replace them entirely, a far more costly exercise? And at work – if we don’t replace our boiler, what are the odds that it will break down again on a particularly freezing day and we will all have to work in our winter coats?

So when Cost Centre #1 lost his phone just before we left Edinburgh, I started calculating the odds of getting it back. It is a smartphone and I am told that there is a ready black market for such items, alas. It was not insured, the annual premiums being almost equivalent to the cost of a new one.

He had gone in a cab with his father to a show, and the pair of them had had a drink in the bar before it started. The taxi company was called, the theatre was turned upside down, inquiries were made at the pub.

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Mrs Moneypenny

My careless son had only himself to blame for the loss of this expensive bit of kit. But I then lay awake thinking through the consequences of my response. If I bought CC#1 a new phone, would that condone his fecklessness? Surely, he needed to learn a sharp lesson about responsibility? But if I didn’t replace it, would he risk penury to do so himself?

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things that any parent or business boss has to do. If you run a small business, are you going to be angry when someone arrives five minutes late? Will there be penalties? Of course not. What if they do it several days in a row? Or if it creeps up to more than five minutes? How many days is too many? How late is too late? At what point must something be said?

These are judgment calls, and they are tough. That’s why each time I need to take a judgment call at work, I calculate the likely consequences. Will my response be seen as draconian? Or if I do nothing, too soft?

In Scotland last month we were living in someone else’s very nice Edinburgh house. I made very few rules for my family and their guests, but one was definitely no food in the living room. Another was set bed times for Cost Centre #3 and friend, as they are only 14. No chewing gum was another.

CC#3 managed to break all three of these rules. I issued immediate sanctions and he started to toe the line. But what, I asked both him and myself, if he had behaved like this when not under my supervision?

One morning I came across a card left on my pillow. It was from CC#3 and, in his best handwriting, it listed the three rules above and apologised for having broken each of them. The final words were: “I am really sorry for the way I have acted whilst I have been here and I wish I could have been more polite and nice around the house and you. I will go to my friend’s house and be the caring and polite boy that I normaly [sic] am.”

Very touching, I thought – but what about asking for multiple other offences to be taken into consideration? The depletion of my gin bottle, for one!

And CC#1’s phone? Someone also visiting the bar where CC#1 had been drinking found it buried beneath a heap of flyers, and at 7.15am the next morning texted the phone contact designated “Mum” to tell me he had it and how to collect it. Step forward the regional manager of an undertakers, and a fine, responsible human being.

Thank you, sir. You saved me from having to make a judgment call. What are the odds of that happening?

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

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