The Asperger’s Child, the Company With A Heart, and the Cheapskate Parents: A Cynical Ethics Tale

This is a sweet and gooey ethics tale with, I fear, a fishy center.

James, luckily captured in spontaneous celebration over the completely unexpected gift from the LEGO company

James, luckily captured in spontaneous celebration over the completely unexpected gift from the LEGO company

James Groccia of West Boylston, Massachusetts was nine years old when he told his parents that his dream gift was an Emerald Night Train LEGO Set. His parents, seeking to build his character before he could build his dream train. told the boy that he had to save up for the expensive set, which cost $100. James has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means that he obsesses about things that interest him to an extreme degree, and he made the Lego set the object of his tunnel vision. After two years of meticulous saving, he finally had enough money saved to purchase his prize—-and discovered that it had been discontinued. Now the  Emerald Night Train could only be obtained from collectors or in expensive online auctions, costing far more money than James had saved. The boy was devastated.

At the suggestion of James’ Asperger’s counsellor, his mother helped him write a letter to LEGO, explaining his devotion to the toy and asking if the company could track one down for him. It responded, with regret,  that indeed the Emerald Night Train LEGO Set was out of stock and was no longer made. Then, a few days before James’s birthday this October, a box addressed to James arrived at the family home. Yes, Virginia, it was a brand-new model of the Emerald Night Train! The accompanying letter from Lego said,

“The Emerald Night Train is a wonderful set, so we can understand why it is your dream to own it. I commend your willpower and patience to save money for over two years just to purchase this set.We have located an Emerald Night Train for you, James, and included it in this package! I am sure you will enjoy building it and cherish your time playing with the train. Fans like you are why we are so lucky as a company. Who knows, maybe you will be working for The LEGO Group one day! You certainly have the heart and passion for our bricks to do so! Happy building, James!”

[Sniff!]

Naturally, and I’m sure without any encouragement from LEGO, the Groccia family made a video of the ecstatic James opening the box, and put the display on YouTube, titling it: “Why LEGO is the BEST Company in the World.” Meanwhile, his mother gushed with praise for the toy giant, writing, “This great, great company went above and beyond to make the dream of a child come true. It’s rare these days that a company will respond in such a generous and personal way and we are very surprised and grateful.”  The local press, of course, has featured the heartwarming tale of the little boy “whose determination made his dreams come true.”

Well.

I would really like to believe this story happened as it is being represented, but I just can’t. There is no rule or principle that says that a kind and generous act is any less so because it benefits the actor as well as the beneficiary, so LEGO deserves credit for its conduct in helping a little boy facing a great disappointment. This is  capitalism at its best, serving the profit motive and virtuous ends simultaneously. Nevertheless, I refuse to believe that LEGO wasn’t revved up to exploit the good publicity from its good deed well in advance of sending its package to James, and I very much doubt that his parents weren’t completely in on the scenario from the start.  If they were not, then they are despicable, rather than just being poseurs.

Think about it. They made their child save for two years to buy the toy he wanted. He has a form of autism that makes this kind of disappointment especially keen.  Because it was discontinued, buying the toy would have cost twice what the boy had saved, maybe a bit more. So what? Why didn’t his parents just buy him the set on eBay?  “There were some available on eBay and Amazon, but they were over $200. That was just too much,” Karen Groccia told the press. Too much? Their 11-year-old emotionally-challenged child saved half of that over two years, and it’s too much for his parents to match a little boy’s  savings so his diligence and thrift buys him something better than disappointment?

What is the matter with these people? Ward and June Cleaver would have thrown in the extra hundred bucks to buy the train after the Beaver had dutifully scrimped and saved the amount that was supposed to buy it. Jim Anderson (“Father Knows Best”) would have bought it too; so would Chet Huxtable (The Cosby Show)…heck, Herman Munster would have spent the hundred bucks is this situation! The Groccias figured out a way to save both their son and themselves the money and get a big corporation to turn the trauma into a marketing bonanza—fine. They get points for cleverness. But either they are lying about LEGO responding spontaneously (and the Groccias just happening to have the idea of making a video of James opening the package), or they are uniquely hard-hearted parents of a mildly autistic child who was rescued from undeserved unhappiness by a big corporation that knows how to make itself look generous while it is simultaneously bolstering its brand.

But, hey, Groccias: congratulations on figuring out how to avoid spending that extra hundred bucks or so to save your young son from disillusionment and disappointment. I think it’s likely, based on this incident, that he’ll have plenty of both down the line.

UPDATE 1: Additional research reveals that Mr. Groccia is a professional photographer and videographer, making it increasingly likely that “poseur” is the fair descriptor, and not “despicable,”  which I hereby retract. You are welcome to believe that someone who regularly makes corporate promotional videos just happened to make one called “Why LEGO is the Best Company In the World” without any quid pro quo from LEGO that included a free rare LEGO set for his kid, and maybe that’s what happened. I think that’s a stretch, and I think the heart-warming story was a concocted, carefully-planned marketing ploy where everyone won–LEGO, the Groccias, and their child—except for the little matter of misrepresenting what really occurred to the media and the public. That’s called lying, and its still unethical.

UPDATE 2: A mutual friend of both Ethics Alarms and the Groccias has taken the time to explicate the situation, and it turns out that all is as it was originally represented after all: heart-warming. More here.

____________________________

Facts: Coulter Press

Source and Graphic: Daily Mail

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

35 Comments

Filed under Business & Commercial, Family, Marketing and Advertising

35 responses to “The Asperger’s Child, the Company With A Heart, and the Cheapskate Parents: A Cynical Ethics Tale

  1. crella

    I agree completely. To keep saving (and probably do without little treats) for that long a time takes will power, even without his disability, It was well worth rewarding. Can they not afford it, or didn’t think it was worth it? I wonder..however sometimes parents have to sacrifice a bit for their kids. They missed an opportunity.

  2. Judy

    If he saved for 2 years, that means 2 opportunities for the greatest present in the world went by for 2 birthdays and 2 Christmases. Now the kid will remember getting the greatest gift from Lego and not from his parents. Parents lost out, they’re only young once!

  3. Judy

    Correction, that was 4 opportunities in 2 years. And all these tender moments that could have gone by the wayside without facebook? But being a parent is not easy, we all make mistakes. Facebook has now magnified them and maybe that’s a good thing!

  4. Debbie Swartz

    I was thinking the same thing as I read it. To have a young child save for two years and not chip in at some point along the way? I think you are correct, Jack, when you mentioned the theory of the parents contacting Lego to get a free train and save themselves some money.

  5. Danielle

    Not that I know the family details but all these comments seem to be spoken like people who have $100 sitting in the bank. Asperger’s is a medical problem and if I am not mistaken, medical bills in the US are the responsibility of the sick and they have at least one other child. $100 pays a heating bill here and for families who have choices like do we eat or stay warm this month, $100 is a lot of money. It took him 2 years to save by saving all the birthday, christmas and gift money he received which tells me that they don’t spend $100 for gifts regularly. Just because Lego knew what they were doing in terms of publicity, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good thing for them to do. And just when I was thinking the blog had moved toward a more understanding perspective lately.

    • Alison Baxter

      Exactly what I was thinking, Danielle!

      • Then, like Danielle, you were thinking with your toes. If this family couldn’t afford to match an 11-year old’s savings, I’ll eat my hat. I just saw “The Homecoming” again. Following Danielle’s logic, John-Boy would have saved for his writing tablets for two years, and Daddy Walton would have said, “Sorry, son—you’re out of luck. May be we should write the tablet company, and they’ll bail you out.” Great Christmas special THAT would have been. Heart-warming.

    • How does what you wrote about LEGO differ from what I wrote in any way? I don’t think I understand your comment at all. You’ll have to be clearer than that. No wonder the blog isn’t “more understanding.”

      Or do you mean the family “DIDN’T” have $100 in the bank? If you do mean that, I have no idea why. If $100 is a “lot of money” to a family, then you don’t let your kid spend it on a toy, period. And it’s not a lot of money, not if the family’s 9 year-old-kid kid accumulates it with no job, and is allowed to spend it on little colored blocks. Poor families with Asperger’s kids don’t have therapists. Families that have to choose between buying a toy and eating don’t—they tell the kid, “You’re getting a ball.” And they can’t afford video equipment or cell phone contracts. If a hundred dollars is “a lot of money” (it just isn’t, unless you live on the street. It’s two full gas tanks. It’s not quite 3 meals for a family of three at McDonald’s. It doesn’t buy a pair of sneakers.), then none of this story happens.

      • Danielle

        Wow. Everything I have ever read about cheap calories is obviously wrong, which I will give you, is possible seeing as I don’t eat at McDonalds but you really need to buy cheaper sneakers and maybe get a smaller car. $100 is a lot of money is all a matter of perspective but you don’t have to be living on the street to think so… you could be $100 short for your inhaler at $102/each and struggling to breath for a week before payday. You could have $65 left between now and next payday to feed a family of 4. I bet $100 would look like a fortune then. Better yet, I don’t live on the street and I think $100 is a lot of money. If you want to send me an extra $100 a month, I would be very appreciative and apparently, you wouldn’t even miss it. I promise not to buy lego with it.

        • You may not have to be living on the street to think so, but if your sub-teen kid has 100 bucks and you’ll let him spend it on a toy, it is NOT a lot of money. Saying you could use an extra hundred bucks a month isn’t the same as thinking it’s a fortune. Go ahead, tell me they would happily buy a mega-LEGO set if they were short the funds for an inhaler.

          Bottom line, $100 was trivial enough to this family that they were willing to let their kid spend it on a pure luxury. You can ignore the obvious if you want to be stubborn, but that’s pretty clear indicia that they had a lot more than a C-note in the bank.

  6. Eric R

    While possible, it’s much more likely that the parents were trying to teach the son lots of social skills and lessons like dealing with disappointment constructively, writing a persuasive letter, planning and communicating effectively. All of these lessons are ones most of us take for granted but can be a really challenge for people with Autism/Asperger’s. Even if the parents have the money to just chip in the extra $100 it doesn’t mean it’s the best choice in this situation.

    To borrow from Freud, sometimes a good-hearted story is just a good-hearted story.

    • Sometimes, but not this time. You have to really work to make the parents’ conduct make sense here. Yes, maybe they thought this was the best way to handle it, but if I were the kid, I know I would have regarded my parents conduct as scrimy and mean.

      • Eric R

        No, if you were this kid you’d have Asperger’s and would have an inability to understand social cues and context. You’d likely not think anything of your parents but have a single minded determination to get the train set. THAT train set. Nothing else would matter. No substitution for that specific train would work.

        Tthe only thing I have to do to make sense of the story is to actually have a child on the autism spectrum. Guess that explains my reaction and yours.

        • So you would say, in that situation, “Hey, this is great! I can be a complete cheap-skate and not help out my poor kid, even though 100 bucks is a lot less of a big deal for me than it is for him, and I just dropped more than that in my weekly poker game and pay that much for a 3 T-shirts, because he is on the autism spectrum and is so focused on the train that he won’t even notice”? I think not. I think you know that it isn’t his comprehension of the situation that defines whether passing off the generous act to a foreign, third-party corporation is the ethical and loving way for a parent to act, but what the situation really is. Obviously the kid was happy. I think he would have been happier if he hadn’t been made to endure the initial disappointment at all…and even if I’m wrong, so what? A caring and ethical parent doesn’t make him wait after he fulfilled the original deal.

          • Eric R

            No one expected the set was a limited run set. The original deal was save your money and you can buy the set. Not, save your money and we’ll give you the rest. The set wasn’t open on the normal market but was getting a markup of 100+% over retail.

            Since you asked, here is what I would do. After checking the budget and seeing I could not afford the markup and realizing it doesn’t send a good message to pay 100%+ markup up, I’d look on e-bay and amazon. I’d contact independent resellers and see if they could make a deal. I’d talk to my son about the situation and help him understand that we don’t always get what we want. I’d explain that people sometime sell things for way too much money and that just because they’re selling doesn’t mean you should buy. I’d encourage him to look for another set, another train to get…. and after all that if it didn’t work, I’d encourage him to do one thing he struggles with the most. Communicate in a letter to the company as a hail-mary pass.

            A caring and ethical parent sometimes has to help a child understand that you don’t always get what you want. Sometimes has to explain supply and demand economics. Has to be the source of disappointment. A caring and ethical parent sometimes has to just say, “No.” What’s more, sometimes a caring and ethical parent just cannot say, “Yes” regardless of how much they’d like to.

            • All good, legitimate, responsible, thoughtful, ethically defensible choices. I just don’t believe a mere doubling of the price at that level should or would trigger that sequence.

          • Danielle

            $100 a week on poker! I am glad you weren’t the one teaching me the value of money.

            • Read more carefully. It refers to dropping $100 ONE week in a poker game, which I have done in the past, as have most people who play poker for more than pennies. I’ve also won that much. If you drop a hundred a week, you’re playing withe the wrong crowd, or should switch to bingo. (It’s 100 bucks for an evening of entertainment with friends—a better deal than Circ de Soleil.)

          • Nina

            Wow. If $100/week is what you can drop on poker, you totally are the WRONG person to be tearing this family a new one.

            Oh, and speaking as someone who has Asperger’s? You REALLY are the wrong person to be tearing this family a new one, because you clearly have no concept of how the disorder works. Maybe if you weren’t such a cynic, and could believe a little in basic good in people, you wouldn’t need to even run a website like this. You’re lucky this family is basically goodhearted–they have a FANTASTIC libel case against you, if they wanted to pursue it.

            • I wonder how much misinformation and poor reasoning you can get in a really long comment, Nina. This was good for a short one, though.
              1. Your first sentence is a non-sequitur. I wonder what you think it means. If they were wrong, they were wrong, and anyone should be able to say it. If you are suggestion bias, you have no logical basis to do so because of one lousy poker night, once.
              2. I know a lot about how the disorder works. There is a wide variation among those with the syndrome.
              3. They don’t have any libel case whatsoever, and I doubt that you know what libel means. I’m a lawyer, you’re not. As a speaker and blogger, it’s my business to understand defamation law..
              4. The family is indeed good-hearted, so your ruined an otherwise perfectly wrong comment.

              Better luck next time.

  7. yxis

    Wow, Mr. Marshall, I didn’t realize you had moderately developed psychic powers you can use to determine every factor of a stranger’s life. I mean, you didn’t say as much, but that’s the only way you could have possibly known the full story behind a youtube video. And since you talk with such *authority* about what you *know* happened, the only answer is, you’re psychic. So congratulations, really. But don’t you think your miraculous powers would be better spent on great scientific discoveries, rather than making presumptuous and self-aggrandizing claims about a family you’ve never met?

    • If you have a better analysis of the facts of the story that makes sense, post them. If we are supposed to feel heart-warmed, then the facts have to be heart-warming, and as we know them, they don’t line up, and point to questionable conduct, and possible outright lies, by the parents and LEGO.

      It doesn’t take a psychic to conclude that the video wasn’t spontaneous, and was part of the deal. By your logic, we should all just swallow the pre-digested pablum the media feeds us without questions or doubts. Yes, applying basic experience and common sense, the story, as reported, sounds fabricated to me. If it doesn’t to you, it doesn’t mean you’re not psychic—it means you’re intellectually incurious, gullible, or naive. And sarcasm isn’t a good substitute for any of these.

      PS. You owe me a name if you want another comment posted. Check the rules.
      You might also look up “self-aggrandizing”, which has nothing to do with the post or my analysis at all. Sounds impressive, though; maybe that’s why you used it. But I’m no mind-reader.

  8. Ron Bishop

    I believe it’s a real story, because my family has lived a very similar story. My 11 year old with Aspergers Disorder, also a Lego fan and in a social skills group, wanted the $400 Death Star set. Sensing a “learning moment”, I told him, if he saved up the money, he could purchase it.

    We looked at what he could do to raise the money. Fortunately, we live a soccer loving area of the country – he played rec soccer, we have season tickets to Sporting KC, I coach, etc…He came up with the idea of becoming a soccer referee. We did loan him the $75 and drove him to the certification clinic he had to attend and pass. We were nervous as he attended the weekend clinic and passed the exam by himself. Fantastic!

    He still had to contact referee assignors for the local leagues. He had to write the letters and talk to the men himself. Self advocacy is very difficult for him. He was too young for several leagues, but one league assignor agreed to hire him. He would $12 a match as a lineman. He dove right in and refereed 5 matches that first weekend in a tournament. He was dog tired. Then he would normally referee 3 EARLY morning matches a weekend. We were fortunate to have the time to drive him. He soon had enough money for the Death Star – but he had SO MUCH MORE ALSO.

    He has now refereed 3 seasons for several leagues. He is known as a good and dependable referee for several assignors. He has gotten additional certifications so he can referee up to U18 anywhere in the US and can referee Futsal (giving him a year around income). He also realizes refereeing could be an opportunity to see the world, since soccer is a world sport. He also has TONS OF LEGOS.

    This is fantastic for a 12 year old – especially one on the Autistic Spectrum! Aspects that make it difficult for him to make friends or read social cues make him a great referee.

    We could’ve made it “easier” for him, there were some rough times (and there will be more), and we have been very fortunate at many times in this journey to have the help of others.

    • A wonderful story, Ron, and the Comment of the Day.
      But the question is this—if, after all of his work, he had found that the Death Star was out of production and it would take another $150 to get it from a collector, would you give him the extra cash?

      • Ron Bishop

        Nope – and that might have been difficult.

        Not because we couldn’t afford it or I didn’t think it was worth the price, but because he now has the means to attain a goal he set for himself. He can decide if he wants to work more for the extra money, it’s no longer worth it to him, he wants to write a letter to Lego or a reseller, or something else has become more important.

        As a parent, I don’t feel my primary role isn’t to make my children happy. I feel my role is to help my children to discover for themselves what makes them happy and figure out how can they attain that happiness themselves. Sometimes, they might not get everything the want, but I try to make sure they get what they need.

        Now, I don’t know this families particular circumstances, as far as opportunities and the boy’s abilities and/or challenges. I also don’t know Legos motivations – or if they have any. We’ve never had any issues with Lego as far as receiving parts that were missing from sets. I have to think Legos are very aware how Autistic Spectrum boys are drawn to Legos. Legos are big in Social Skills classes because you can easily go from parallel play to interactive play – or not.

        • There are substantial differences in the scenarios—your son has the capacity to make money, and that distinguishes him from the typical 11 year old materially. Nobody said that the primary role of a parent is to make their offspring happy. I think that a parent can stand by and allow a child to be disappointed by the vicissitudes of fate if he or she chooses, but I think that’s a lesson I would eschew in favor or recognizing a child’s completion of a goal requiring sacrifice and self-control by helping him achieve the reward he had been led to respect.

          • Debbie Swartz

            While my primary role as a parent isn’t to make my children happy, it is a role I still have, especially if I can make them happy after they’ve fulfilled their end of a bargain. I would not, after having my young child save two years (I feel like I should place an exclamation point here) – which is a huge lesson in itself – deny them the thing they sought because the price had gone up. I would explain that I was proud of him/her and that the cost had increased, but that I was funding the remainder. I don’t think allowing an 11-year-old to save for two years and then to say, ‘oh, tough luck on that train cost going up,’ is much of a lesson. For a 16-year-old, perhaps I could be persuaded. For an 11-year-old, who started saving when he was 9; absolutely not.

          • tgt

            You pick lessen A over lessen B. They picked lessen B over lessen A. Both are important lessens, and the parents may have already been enforcing lessen A previously.

  9. LEGO is a European firm.

    They have a different corporate culture, or culture of cultures.

    I have zero problems believing that someone in their customer service department did some hunting around, possibly unpaid, to do this, with the hope that some long-term financially favourable outcome to the firm would result. But not an expectation – it’s just the kind of thing successful firms, or those wanting to be successful, do. Even without publicity. Even when there’s no hope of reward. The stockholders insist on it.

    Fans like you are why we are so lucky as a company. Who knows, maybe you will be working for The LEGO Group one day!

    Maybe he will… and if he does, would be likely to go the extra mile for the company, voluntarily. Cast enough bread on the waters, you get a return in the long-term, directly or indirectly.

    I think a lot of people would like to work for a company like that.

  10. Considering that the Megan in customer service at LEGO is my niece, i am pretty sure her motives were as altruistic as the letter implies…. thats all i want to share here.

  11. Rich R.

    While I shared your initial skepticism as to why the parents didn’t just pony up an extra hundred bucks, I came to the conclusion that the story is mostly genuine. I think that absent additional information, you may have over stated the the child’s attachment to the toy, and which led to too harsh a criticism of the parent’s actions. Our too main data points to assess the child’s attachment are the video of him opening the package and the letter he wrote, neither of which are conclusive on their own.

    I work in a school system, and have seen plenty of children get as excited as the boy in the video over things smaller than waiting two years for train set. It alone is not enough to show a strong two year obsession, and certainly not evidence of a purely Asperger’s driven obsession.

    Furthermore, I think we can both accept that the letter was written in a manner to invoke a strong emotional response, stressing his disappointment in how he saved for two years only to find it discontinued. Without additional information, we don’t know that this was spontaneous act on his own. He could have, for instance, been prompted by his parents after each birthday to consider saving the money, rather than spend it on smaller items. He also could have just been excited over the possibility, but willing to accept that it might not pan out. It was not necessarily a gamble exposing the child to excessive disappointment.

    Asperger’s is a complicated syndrome, of which obsessive behavior is only a small part.

    Finally, I agree that Lego contacted the parents before sending the package. They would have had an ethical obligation to ensure the package was appropriate. The child for instance, could have written the letter without his parent’s permission, or from Lego’s perspective, it could have been a collector trying to cheat the system. There is nothing nefarious about the parents coordinating with the company on a nice surprise for their son. Recording the child’s response was also a nice gesture of appreciation that may or may not have been directly coordinated with Lego.

    While I agree that some of the details of the story have been washed over to make it sappy and heartwarming, the truth is not necessarily as bleak as you portrayed. Other parent’s of children with Aspergers have chimed in, largely concurring with the parent’s actions in the Lego story. Children with Aspergers need to be taught how to reach reasonable goals without obsessing, and budgeting and letter-writing are reasonable (using a Lego trainset as a *potential* reward) seams to be reasonable skills to teach.

  12. Melissa

    Visual queuing is the cornerstone of facilitating social growth with a kid on the spectrum. We have videoed and cataloged literally THOUSANDS of hours of social situations to assist our child to understand different contexts, lessons, etc. If my child worked diligently and problem solved, then was gifted a wonderful gift for his perseverance in the face of adversity and disappointment, I would most definitely capture it. It is not necessarily staged.

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