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By timestaff
June 18, 2008

by JEANNE FLEMING, PH.D. and LEONARD SCHWARZ

Question: I was at standing on a pier recently when my hat blew into the lake. A nice kid, maybe 9 or 10 years old, swam out and got it for me. I thanked him appreciatively and also thanked his mother, who was nearby. A friend says a “thank you” wasn’t enough – that I should have given the boy ten bucks, or maybe treated him and his friends to ice cream cones. What do you think?

Answer: What’s next? Tipping the kid who gives you his seat on a bus?

Look, this boy wasn’t a beach concession employee and he wasn’t performing the kind of service people are paid for. He was doing a good deed, not bringing you a cocktail. For that he deserves what any stranger deserves for a kindness: your sincere thanks, not a payment.

No doubt your friend believes the boy’s virtuous behavior should be reinforced. Indeed it should, but your thanks and his mother’s praise are the appropriate reinforcement. Give the kid cash or treat to a round of ice cream cones and you risk encouraging him to think that a good deed involves a quid pro quo. Instead what he should be learning is that virtue is its own reward.

And what about reciprocating his kindness? That’s where age really matters. Had an adult rescued your hat, offering him or her an ice cream – or a beer – would have been an unnecessary but gracious gesture. The difference here is that someone old enough for a beer is presumably old enough not to come away from the experience believing that performing a good deed automatically gives you a shot at a score.

Questions? Email Money Magazine’s ethicists – authors of “Isn’t It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?” (Free Press) – at FlemingandSchwarz@right-thing.net.

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Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

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