In the beautiful and hilarious novel A Man Called Ove, a young Ove is working at the same railyard as his father. He is cleaning a car with another worker, Tom, when they find a briefcase left by a passenger. Instinctively, Tom goes to steal it. Ove is surprised, and then more surprised when a few seconds later, he finds a wallet left by a different passenger. Tom goes to steal that too, but Ove picks it up.
Just then, Ove’s father walks in. He asks Ove what he wants to do with the wallet. Ove suggests that they return it to the lost and found. Proudly, his father and he return the wallet, where it is quickly claimed by the woman who lost it—with all her money inside. “Not many people have ever handed in this much money,” the woman says. Well, Ove’s father replies as he holds his son’s hand, “many people don’t have any decency either.”
Later that evening, Ove asks his father why he didn’t tell management about the briefcase that Tom had stolen. His father shakes his head. “We’re not the sort of people who tell tales about what others do.”
In both instances, Ove’s father is showing his boy what decency looks like, although the latter might seem less obvious. Do the right thing, we know that’s what we’re supposed to do. But Tom, who is a jerk throughout the novel, also has four kids and a sick wife. Maybe he needed what was in the briefcase. Maybe he was too far gone to be redeemed—and that was his business.
Decency is about what you do. It’s not something you enforce on other people. Decency is what you do with money you find, it’s how you raise your kids. It’s not something you wield, it’s not something you gossip about. As Marcus Aurelius writes, “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.”
Teach your kids that.
P.S. This was originally sent on December 9, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Dad’s email and get our popular 11 page eBook, “20 Things Great Dads Do Everyday.”