On Object Lessons and the Probabilities of Parenting

Utah natives know that the often-stinking, ever-shrinking Great Salt Lake is reserved for brine flies and European tourists. So if you grew up in Salt Lake City and your parents wanted to take the family to the beach, as mine sometimes did, chances are you’d pile into the minivan and head to Southern California. 

Leaving Salt Lake City for the beach is easy because you really only have two options: I-80 West to San Francisco or I-15 South to Los Angeles. And unless you’d like to see the Golden Gate Bridge on your way to beaches where your kids actually want to play (quite a detour), there’s a 97% chance that you’ll dope your kids up on gummy bears and granola bars and hit I-15, probably hours later than you intended. 

Given that your kids are complex psycho-physiological timebombs—as my parents’ kids may have been, at least their oldest—you will, therefore, almost certainly stop in Las Vegas. Even though the entire state of Nevada—like Nebraska—is meant only for driving through, but for different reasons.

If you’re lucky it’s just a pitstop: a quick jaunt into a gas station for the restrooms, more gummy bears, more granola bars. And hopefully the kids won’t see too much of … Vegas … as they dash in and out.

If you’re unlucky or if you’re the Intrepid Adventure-Dad or both—that’s My Dad we’re talking about here, folks—your kids will be simultaneously combusting and leaking, and the maroon 1988 Plymouth Voyager will be wheezing for gas at exactly dinner time. And you’ll cave to the advertisements for cheap family dining at one of the restaurants buried deep in a labyrinthian casino. 

And so it was that we kids were ushered by our parents through a maze of poker tables, cocktail waitresses, and sundry distractions towards food, glorious food. 

“You know, kids,” said my dad, “a guaranteed payout of 97% is the same as a 3% loss over time—if you played these games long enough.” I don’t know if my dad was genuinely excited about statistics or if he was trying to hold our attention so we wouldn’t have reason to ask him to define “pasties.” 

We neared the restaurant.

He persisted.

We stopped. Mom sighed.

“See,” said he, taking a quarter from his pocket. “Putting this quarter into this slot machine is essentially throwing it away. Basically a zero probability of winning.”

Like the probability that you’d choose to leave Salt Lake City via I-80 to see the Golden Gate Bridge en route to sunny beaches.

He dropped the quarter in the slot.

Like the probability of making it to SoCal without stopping in Vegas. 

He pulled the lever.

Like the probability of object lessons working out as planned, and parenting being the skittles and cheese puffs you imagined when you were reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

The little wheels spun—real analog, early-90s wheels decorated with numbers and gold coins and cherries.

The blurry flurry resolved itself one blessed wheel at a time: first a cherry. Then another. Then another.

For an instant, our kid-sized stomachs stopped growling. If we had to pee, we held it. If we had been fighting (likely), we declared a spontaneous truce. For now we kids knew why we had actually stopped in Las Vegas.


If we had had doubts about this oasis of magic and mercy called Vegas, they vanished as shimmering quarters poured and plinked from the machine, like water from the rock in the Old Testament—but clearly much, much, better. 

Lessons learned! Go, dad, go!

As our eyes widened, my dad’s brow furrowed. This was the man with the finance degree. The man with spreadsheets. The indomitable scoutmaster and civic volunteer. Captain Object Lesson himself. Foiled.

But, hey, if you find manna outside your tent—do you leave it to rot? Of course not. You wouldn’t want to commit the sin of ingratitude, would you? No, you would indiscriminately mix your Old Testament metaphors, swallow your pride, and spend your manna at the 24-hour casino diner. Cheap family dining, indeed!

It turns out that delivering successful object lessons—based on my own track record here—is about as likely as winning the jackpot. But commitment is commitment, and parenting isn’t that much different than sitting in a high-decibel stupor, eyes glazed, feeding quarters from a bucket into the one-armed bandit. You know, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

To be fair, after dinner that night, my dad fed the remaining quarters back into the machine—just to make his point.

Plink. Plink. Plink. Gone. A guaranteed 97% payout is indeed the same thing as a 3% loss over time. 

“Okay, dad we get it, we get it,” we pleaded, as we settled back into the minivan—probably listening to Paul Simon sing about Graceland on the cassette player—and watched the city lights fade with the sunset as my folks steeled themselves for the overnight drive.