Here’s the deal

When I was 12 or so, much to my amazement, my dad decided to buy a motorcycle. Even better, it wasn’t a big Harley or a Goldwing — it was a little Kawasaki 100, a bike that wasn’t out of the question for me to ride. I must have sensed this, because I thought of it as mine, or at least partly mine, shortly after we got it.

It had been advertised in the local paper for $275. The address was in the older part of town. Not a particularly rough neighborhood, but not a nice one either. I remember driving up and seeing the bike for the first time.

I was keenly interested in motorcycles. Two older boys in my neighborhood had bikes like this one (better, actually, but you have to start somewhere) and I followed them around, peppering them with questions and hoping that they’d suffer temporary insanity and let me go for a ride.

I also knew my dad, and it wouldn’t be like him to say we were going to buy something and then change his mind. And so I’m sure it was obvious that I was excited, and I’m sure this fact wasn’t lost on the seller.

It was abundantly clear that we liked the bike and intended to buy it. And that’s when I got a bit of a life lesson. Dad asked the woman selling the bike, “275, right?” She paused, feigning confusion, and then sort of scoffed and said, “Oh — is that what he put in the ad? It was supposed to be $325.”

For years afterward, I thought of my dad’s handling of that situation as proof that he is incapable of negotiation, because he just chuckled, said something sarcastic but not confrontational, and agreed to the new price.

Like most of us, I’ve turned out to be much more like my parents than I expected. I marvel at bargain hunters, hagglers, and coupon-cutters. But not because I envy them. I marvel because I’d much rather pay full price than spend my time fretting over the deal I might have gotten.

Dad grew up without a lot of money, and to him someone who haggles and negotiates is advertising that they don’t have any money to spare. To dad, haggling is something that poor people do because they have to, and swindlers do because they are swindlers.

So for dad to chuckle and agree to this last-second price hike wasn’t dad caving in so much as dad being glad he didn’t have to sweat the extra $50. He didn’t resent her — he felt sorry for her.

Saying “I would have handled that differently” is, of course, very easy. I’ve wondered many times if I would in fact have gotten that little Kawasaki for the advertised price.

But there is another factor that didn’t occur to me until I became a parent: if he had said “No, I’ll pay $275 like your ad said,” it is possible that she would have said “Fine, then I’ll keep the bike,” in which case dad’s 12 year-old son — who was standing there with a dazed and stupid smile on his face — would have been crushed.

That’s a form of leverage I didn’t understand until I had kids. Yes, to cave into that pressure every time is the very definition of a weak parent, but there are days when you’re in a good mood, your kids are having a blast, and you want that feeling to last for as long as it can. And if it means buying a $10 balloon, or a burger that you know will not be finished, or a toy that you know will break before the week is out, well… then you’re grateful that you can extend your happy day and not worry about a few extra bucks.

Have I spent the modern equivalent of $50 in order to keep one of my kids happy just a little longer? No, not yet. But I have no doubt that that day is coming.

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