Sinner and a sinner’s son

I never can remember whether I’m sinning in South Carolina.

The target for sin is one that moves and not in a way you’d expect. You’re more apt to run right into the bullseye than miss entirely. One of our local bartenders is a graduate of Bob Jones University, one of the most conservative think tanks on sin in the country. Last night our man overheard some people talking about a local strip joint.

“I haven’t been there,” he said offhandedly, “in, like, nine months.”

The underlying definition of sin is probably something we can all get behind. Bill and Ted offer us the “Be excellent to each other” edict, and sin, at least at its foundation, is doing the opposite of that. The tough part is when people start building on that foundation in a way that ends up with me going to some mysterious bad place that is probably the winter home for Idi Amin and Jerry Falwell. It gets even more confusing when that Jenga tower of sin is the foundation for laws.

See, it’s easy to know when I’m breaking the law in South Carolina. It’s somewhere between frequently and always, and if not then, it’s when I’m awake.

Everything is illegal in the Palmetto State. Playing any game with cards or dice is unlawful in some fairly general and antiquated ways. So is wagering on just about anything, unless of course it’s done by spending your child’s lunch money on a scratch-off lottery ticket, in which case it’s cool, encouraged, and advertised as a way to help education. I have a hard time keeping up. If there is ever a question about whether something is or should be illegal, we can always call on the people who really get into the idea of legislating their morality.

About ten years ago, legions of people from South Carolina’s Baptist churches rallied against video poker machines. It was an expensive and vitriolic campaign that painted anyone who gambled or supported gambling as sinners. It was clear that the pious believed all the gamblers were all going to hell after they went to jail. It’s a tough lot for the gambler in these parts.

The Bible is pretty vague on the topic of gambling, primarily, I think, because the Harrah’s corporation didn’t have a seat at the Last Supper. It seems like a book of such vast rule-making should’ve spoken a little more directly than “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Fortunately, the folks around here are good interpreters. Not too many years ago, Sumter, SC Reverend Tony Trott laid out the argument. “Gambling is a sin,” he said, “because it breaks the Tenth Commandment.”

That’s as close as anyone can come around here to finding a reason why God doesn’t like craps, poker, or NCAA March Madness pools. That is, playing video poker is the equivalent of coveting your neighbor’s stuff, and hence, well, you’re going to hell.

It’s not that I worry so much about myself. I gamble on everything from the toss of a wedge of citrus fruit to whether there is a picture of a clown or cowboy on a $5 chip in Pauly‘s hand. I’m pretty certain that if I’m wrong and the pious are right, there isn’t much saving me (the current Vegas line has me favored at 2-1 though, so get your bets down). I wonder, however, how my son will feel later about the fact that I started him down the road to degeneracy at age five.

As you might have read here or elsewhere, my five-year-old son placed third in Pauly’s NCAA pool earlier this month. His picks won him $150. It came in the form of a personal check we cashed this afternoon. We got it in singles, which pleased the kid to no end.

Young, tough, and rich

My promise to my son was that he could spend anything he won in any way he wanted. I didn’t expect him to win anything, but when he did, I stood by my promise, which meant going to Toys R Us after dinner for a little father-son spending spree. The boy led the way through the aisles, making his choices, asking me about prices, and bouncing from item to item like the very definition of ADD. I smiled as I pushed the cart and watched him toss some Star Wars figures on top of a couple of light sabers.

This continued for almost an hour when I suddenly grew embarrassed. It seemed people were watching me (and the 150-bill bulge in my front pocket) and wondering “What in the holy hell is this guy doing? He’s letting his kid have whatever he wants!” I felt myself wanting to explain every time we passed another mom or dad in the aisle. It was a gross display of consumerism and I felt a twinge of regret. It was only bearable because of the smile on my boy’s face.

Somehow the kid finally stopped and said, “Okay, that’s it. Let’s go.” Eerily, and with no help from me, he hit within 58 cents of the $150 he’d won. The girls at the counter counted out the bills and we got in the car to go home.

I sat in the parking lot trying to figure out what to say. Over the past month, I’d endured some good-natured ribbing about turning my son into a degenerate, letting him gamble before he can ride a bike without training wheels, and encouraging him to equate sports with gambling. Not once during all of it did I feel the slightest twinge of guilt. Then, I sat in the car with a bag full of toys and realized I’d probably committed one of the biggest real sins.

I made my kid think that “stuff” matters.

Part of how my wife an I parent our kids is to make sure they never want for anything they need, and make sure they never equate happiness with having stuff. It’s not a matter of whether they are spoiled, because we do our best to spoil them with experience, journeys, and life. We don’t, however, want them to think that they will be happy because they have a big bag of toys.

Before I pulled out of the parking lot, I turned around and looked at the kid while he messed with a plastic droid.

“Buddy, you know that this is a special occasion, right?” I said. “You know none of that stuff matters, right?”

He nodded and said something in a droid voice that made me laugh. It might have been time for a life lesson, but it didn’t happen.

Part of sin is repentance, and that part is on me. No heart as innocent as my boy’s can truly be full of sin. It’s my job to make sure he knows going forward that having stuff should only be a byproduct of a life well-lived.

It would probably be a little intellectually dishonest of me to not acknowledge that my definition of sin might be a little closer to ol’ Reverend Trott’s than I might like to admit. The desire for stuff is pretty much the definition of coveting, whether it’s your neighbor’s wife or his Star Wars collection (or, better, your neighbor’s wife dressed up as Princess Leia). The problem is that Reverend Trott and his ilk make the leap from gambling to coveting that only exists in the hearts and minds of people who are morally bankrupt on other levels.

I don’t believe gambling is as morally indefensible as the wanton hoarding of stuff for stuff’s sake. The gambling and the coveting aren’t mutually exclusive, but they also aren’t inextricably entwined. I let my boy taste sin and I don’t feel all that great about it. The whole “sins of the father” thing can be a real bitch, especially when the father has a less than traditional view about the definition and application of sin in the first place.

But, in the end, I got to see my boy smile, and it reminded me that he without sin can cast the first whatever.

Or, as my son seemed to be implying in the photo below: Suck it. I got your money.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

You may also like...

15 Responses

  1. Bob Woolley says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t teach him about “bing blang blaow” and rubbing the money on his titties.

    More seriously, one of the best aphorisms I ever heard in church was this: “We’re put on earth to learn to love people and to use things. If you get those mixed up, you go to hell.”

  2. bigdaddy says:

    Nice blog Otis. I have often had similar worries with the way I raised my son, but I always thought it was better that I taught him some rules about gambling so that he wouldn’t be a complete degen and gamble responsibly if there is such a thing. He’s 29 married to a great woman, working on his doctorate, has his dream job, and so far gambling hasn’t been an issue. So for now I think I am winner. Good luck with your son.

  3. Drizztdj says:

    Best wager I’ve ever lost. Well worth it, especially after reading this.

    Born and raised Catholic (not practicing now) with card/gambling loving parents and grandparents, I was never told nor directed that gambling was a sin nor should I feel guilty for wanting a piece of my grandfather’s parlay number’s card for the bowl games.

    Religion shouldn’t be the basis of testing gambling’s legality, it’s a way of life that certain people choose to live there existance thru. Imposing those interpretations of a book on others who want to call a river bet in a home game without getting a ticket, is the real sin.

  4. Bam-Bam says:

    A challenge presented opportunity and with that, came success. Success was then rewarded with some “stuff” and a great few hours for the boy with his Dad. More of those hours will surely come from playing with the “stuff” with Dad, Mom and Dos.

    Doesn’t sound too ‘sin’-ister to me but then again, mini-Peb’s was holding a bass guitar and jammin’ like Cliff Burton at the age of 8.

    So despite your current Vegas odds being slightly better than mine, I’ll see you there for a drink. Where ever there ends up being!

  5. broc says:

    you can make amends by using his skill to help someone else and have him pick me some day game winners today!!

  6. Little Willie says:

    I’m pretty sure you have not turned the boy into a gambler. He is already mixing his bankroll with his regular money. He didn’t even consider using the $150 to bet on something else. You still have a lot of work to do.

  7. RedxBranch says:

    first— So, you forgot how to write, huh? pfft

    second— β€œFor the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” If a person really ‘loved money’ would he be willing to gamble with it? I don’t think so.

  8. Wes says:

    I’m tinged with guilt every time I leave the house on Wednesdays and Sundays and tell the kids I’m “going to see some friends.” I think you’re OK here though. This is more of a contest than a gamble. By the time he’s old enough to play with his own money, he’ll realize it’s a crap shoot. Just to be safe though, can I buy his picks for next year?

  9. Jo says:

    Interesting post, made me think. I wasn’t sure I liked your ‘kid with cash’ photo, but the feeling didn’t make sense because I take my kids to the races and let my daughter gamble.

    She once picked a 66/1 winner and I gave her some of the money but not the lot. She wasn’t old enough to understand odds so I got away with it. I didn’t keep the cash out of greed (although I was losing so it was useful!) but I know how much she likes money and things, just like all kids. It didn’t seem right to give her Β£132 of easy money for some random pick. She’s keen to do her chores to earn her pocket money, I didn’t want her asking when we were going to the races instead.

    I don’t think giving her the money would have been a huge mistake, but I can’t see that it would have taught her any useful lesson’ and it could have been harder to get her to set the table and feed the cat. She’s older than your son so it’s different, and if she’d been five I might well have given her a spending spree treat.

    I think I’d like my daughter to learn that gambling is about reward for some risk. I don’t want her thinking win money comes out of the air. So if she’s going to learn about wins, then maybe she needs to learn about losses too? Except I wouldn’t have her bet her own money at the races, she didn’t ask to be there, she’s not old enough to judge a good bet. It would be a fast way for her to lose her pocket money – it would be cruel.

    She’s getting smart enough to understand odds now (great maths lesson) so I need a new plan for racing days. I’ll probably give her Β£10 and tell her it’s up to her what she does with it. I expect she’ll spend it fast on 66/1 horses and wish she’d taken it to a toy shop instead. It will be a harder lesson for me, I’d rather see her enjoy wins and play with new toys than see her lose.

  10. BadBlood says:

    Only thing I may have done differently was let him spend some of it and save the rest for a rainy day. And by rainy day, I mean for next year’s pool. πŸ™‚

    When your kids appear on TV playing poker, come talk to me. πŸ™‚

  11. Absinthe says:

    This is all perfectly well and good so long as next season when his bracket bombs out early, all of the toys go to the pawn shop to cover his buyin. So long as he doesn’t ask to go double or nothing, you won’t have any need to worry.

  12. trodoss says:

    I appreciate going for the Star Wars toys πŸ˜‰

    β€œSize matters not, … Look at me. Judge me by size, do you?” — Yoda.

  13. joaquinochoa says:

    I, like Mrs. Otis, didn’t grow up with a lot in my pocket…nor did my folks have a lot in their pocket…but what they did have in those pockets was a bunch of love.

    My friend…that trumps all money and sin when you get older.

  14. StB says:

    Sounds to me like you and your wife a doing a fine job of raising your kids.

  1. December 31, 2010

    […] Sinner and a sinner’s son–Testing that theory about the sins of the father… […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *