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The parable of the tricycle

Sat 26 Jul 2008 by mskala Tags used: ,

Imagine a young man nearing his 16th birthday, the day when he'll be eligible to get a driver's license. And let's imagine this is before graduated licensing was a big thing, or else imagine that he's maybe a little older and getting ready for the final level of the graduated system instead of the first level, or something like that. The point isn't exactly his age, just that he's about to get to the point where having a vehicle of his own would be a pretty good thing.

Now, he's in a fairly affluent society, and it's not unknown for rich parents to present their children with new cars upon their 16th birthdays. That's not unknown but it's pretty unusual and there's no way he can reasonably expect it from his own parents, who are of modest means; he knows this. Nonetheless it's a possibility that he's aware of and he can't help being aware of. A more realistic possibility might be that they'd give him a used car; or give him some money to put towards his own purchase of a used car; or even just co-sign on the loan for him to buy one himself. He's willing and able to get a job, maybe he already has a job, and can do the work and earn the money himself. It doesn't have to be a gift.

But of course he has at least once thought of what it would be like to be just given a new car by his parents, free and clear, as he knows does occasionally happen to people turning 16. It has happened to a few of his friends. He has imagined the experience of being given maybe an envelope with the keys in it on the morning of his 16th birthday. He has certainly thought about what kind of car he'd most like to have, what colour it would be, and so on. His parents know that too, and he knows they know, and they know he knows they know and so on.

And, again (this is a short, simple story so I feel like I have to pad it out): it needn't be the perfect car, even though he's picked out what the perfect car would be. It could be used instead of new, that would be okay. Anything he can ride would actually be pretty good. Or a contribution towards his efforts at getting his own, even a small contribution.

On the morning of his 16th birthday our boy's parents present him with a large wrapped box, and he's pleased, but mystified. An actual car couldn't fit in there. Normally you'd give someone the keys, or some small symbolic item (like a Hot Wheels toy car) to represent the actual vehicle that would be parked somewhere else. Or a cheque in an envelope or a note of some kind. Anything like that, though, would be much smaller. Maybe the box contains some other gift, completely unrelated?

He opens the box and finds that it contains a child's toy tricycle, in rather poor shape, apparently purchased for a couple dollars at a garage sale. His beaming parents tell him that they knew he'd wanted a vehicle, and they hope he enjoys it.

The first thought is that the tricycle is a wacky variation of the "give something small, like a toy car, to represent the real one that won't fit in the box and is parked elsewhere." But no, this is the whole present. There isn't a "real one" somewhere else, this is supposed to be for real. The next thought is that it's a sick joke - but nobody seems to be laughing. It takes a few rounds of confused, blurry questioning, before the message sinks in: his loving parents have given him this tricycle in the honest and sincere belief that it really is what he wanted. It's not just a matter of giving him a used car because they couldn't afford the new one, and a tricycle because they couldn't afford the used car. They are unaware of there being any compromise here at all. As far as they are concerned, the tricycle isn't just a substitute for a car, and it's not supposed to be "as good as" the new car he'd been secretly hoping for - they think it really is in every way a full satisfaction of everything he had wanted. They think it is the new car in all ways that matter. It's supposed to be the overwhelmingly good dream present, no compromise.

Well, if he'd gotten the new car, that would have been pretty cool, but he couldn't expect that.

If he'd gotten a used car, that would have been pretty cool too.

Or a contribution towards his own eventual purchase of a used car.

Or a co-signature to help him get the loan, without any direct contribution.

Or, you know what? Even if they hadn't done that, it would have been okay. The dream of getting a car just isn't that important. What really matters is that they love him and want him to be pleased, and that's more important than actually helping him achieve his goal. His parents don't owe him anything.

But they gave him the tricycle. He can't ride it because it was built for someone the size of a four-year-old, he can't use it for any of the purposes he would use his car for if he had one, and he can't even realistically sell it and use the money, because the time that would take would be time he could be spending at his part-time job, earning more money to put towards his car than the value of the tricycle. It's worse than useless to him.

What can one say or do?

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