Spilled Drink Leads to Debate About Rules

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Dear Miriam,

I recently bought my daughter a lemonade at a place with a self-serve soda fountain. Halfway through drinking it, she decided she’d rather have fruit punch. The sign prominently said, “no free refills,” so I told her she couldn’t get a different drink. A minute later, she spilled her entire lemonade on the floor, completely by accident. I told her she could get more, approximating what had been left in her cup, and that she could get fruit punch this time if she wanted to. She then told me I was breaking the rules. Who was right?

Signed,

Self-righteous self-serve

Dear Self,

Restaurants, even those with “no free refills” signs, typically make exceptions when a drink or ice cream cone or something comparable gets spilled. They’re even more likely to make those exceptions when a child is involved, since not to do so makes them look wholly lacking in compassion in the eyes of other customers. That reputation is worse for their bottom line than giving out the occasional free drink.

With that in mind, if your question had been simply about getting a free refill for a spilled drink, I would have told you without hesitation that you did the right thing. My only addition would have been that you could have asked the cashier first so that no one would think you were trying to cheat the system. While your question is essentially the same, of course, it’s complicated by your previous denial of your daughter’s request for a refill.

The issues here are twofold: Teaching your child honesty and respect on the one hand, and getting your child her much-desired drink on the other hand. The best option here would be to turn it back to your daughter and ask some guiding questions. “Why do you think I’m breaking the rules? What’s the difference between the first time you wanted to get fruit punch and the second time? If you worked here, would you let someone else get a refill? Can you think of any other times we make exceptions to rules?”

Let her tease it out a little bit. If she decides to get a refill of lemonade only, that’s fine. If she decides she needs to ask the cashier, that’s a fine outcome, too (and I’m still certain that anyone who works there would let her have it for free, especially if she’s under the age of 10 and seemed at all upset about spilling the drink). If she decides she really needs fruit punch but the only honest option is to pay for it, I would encourage you to shell out the money to help her grapple with this confusing set of circumstances.

Teaching kids to respect rules is an important part of parenting, but I would argue that teaching kids that there are exceptions to rules is just as important. Life contains a lot of nuances, and helping your daughter to navigate such difficulties over a low-stakes situation like lemonade will probably benefit her a great deal later in life when she encounters gray areas with greater consequences.

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