$338 million ticket: When parents buy and lose, their kids do too

A $338 million ticket was sold in New Jersey to someone who is probably celebrating. But within the families of losing ticket holders, a familiar sense of loss is settling in.

Tyson Trish/Associated Press
The $338 million Powerball ticket was sold in New Jersey. Are kids losing out when their parents try to win big? Here, a clerk in Totowa, N.J., hands tickets to customer on March 24.

Somebody in New Jersey spent $2 on a Powerball lottery ticket and just won $338 million. As for the rest of the ticket holders, I hope they take home the valuable knowledge that gambling rarely pays a return and is a total loss in the parenting department.

Despite the probability of winning in Powerball being about one in 175 million, according to NBC News, people in 42 states, Washington, D.C., and the US Virgin Islands, bought tickets. We have a better chance of dying from a bee sting, one in 6.1 million, or death via lightning strike, one in 3 million. Indeed, sometimes lightening strikes lottery ticket holders. The Chicago Tribune reports that a 48-year-old “bought three lottery tickets, hoping to win the big jackpot which had grown to more than $600 million. After he bought the tickets, he jokingly said to a friend that he had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than winning. Unfortunately, he was right." 

Still, we build up hope, and the hope of our children, and continue to buy lottery tickets. 

Therefore, rather than risk the proverbial lightning strike from on high, I will admit right up front that in the midst of financial distress, I personally did not resist the temptation to buy a ticket for the monster jackpot that preceded the most recent Powerball lottery. 

I can count the number of times I have bought a ticket — twice— and both times at my husband’s urging due to our ongoing financial distress. That does not excuse my lack of judgment in the slightest. I realize that a penny saved is a penny earned and the $2 wasted on the lottery would have been far more effective in my youngest son’s piggy bank. How often as parents do we tell kids, “Do as I say, not as I do?” However, since I made the mistake twice and suffered the consequences, I feel like I have a bit more insight about a practice that has become widely accepted as a means of funding our public projects and even schools.

According to CBS News our dollars are baked into the fiscal pie as follows, “Revenue from that pie is divided in three ways: About 60 percent goes to prize winners; 15 percent to retailers, marketing and operations; and 25 percent, or about $14 billion, goes back to the states for government services.” That’s a huge chunk of change handed over to the country's coffers. It makes me feel as if we are sending the message to kids that government is run largely on a bet.

For my part I think that’s a poison pie. The sickness I felt at the loss of the ticket money and the destruction of my little fantasy that we'd win was magnified by the fact that my son, 9, was with me when I checked the ticket. You’d have thought I was smuggling drugs the way I sneaked over to the little scanner to see if the ticket was a winner while he was picking out a snack.

However, to a child, a sneaking mom is like a flare in the dark. He materialized at my side just as the machine lit up a phrase in blue: “This ticket is not a winner.” I instantly realized the massive, compounded error I’d made. 

My son asked me, “So how does this work actually? Do they just give you the ticket for free or something?” No, I told him, you pay for the tickets. Then, at that moment, I felt the utter misery a parent feels after realizing they've done a bad job must find a way to reverse the damage ASAP. 

Buying a lottery ticket is a parenting error. Some may disagree, but the reality is that according to the National Center for Responsible Gaming, “[A]nywhere from 2 percent to 7 percent of young people experience a gambling addiction, compared to about 1 percent of adults. An estimated 6 percent to 15 percent of youth have gambling problems that are less severe, while 2 percent to 3 percent of adults fall into that category. Boys are more likely to experience a gambling problem than girls.”

So I came clean with my son about the mistake I’d made, the money I’d wasted, and why gambling was a mistake I didn’t want him to make. He cheerfully replied, “Well derp! Who can’t figure that out if you give money and don’t get anything back?”

Bingo. What a response. I will admit that as a parent I got lucky because there certainly wasn’t any skill involved in the way I’d handled that particular incident. In fact, I can probably credit the sheer, stone cold logic of Asperger’s for his quick reply more than anything he learned by my example that day. In fact, many parents could benefit from more stone cold logic when it comes to kids and fostering gambling habits. For example, an act as a simple as choosing to give a kid money for their birthday instaed of a lottery ticket.  

According to the Associated Press, in Dec. 2012 : “New Jersey's Council on Compulsive Gambling and the state lottery are advising people that they shouldn't give lottery tickets as holiday gifts to children. In a joint statement, the two groups say gambling at an early age can increase the risk of becoming a compulsive gambler. New Jersey law requires lottery purchasers to be 18 or over, but does not specifically prohibit giving lottery tickets to kids. A recent Yale University study found that youngsters who received instant tickets as a gift tended to begin gambling earlier in life.”

Perhaps the only good thing about scratch off tickets is they demonstated there is no skill to winning a lottery. There are news shows consistently dedicating air time to how to best pick the winning numbers in a lottery. Gamblers tend to have a system, culling numbers from their wedding anniversaries or children’s birth dates, or parsing through lists of previous numbers to avoid repeating a combination. 

These reports give an illusion that lottery requires skill when it’s really all just random chance. Even when a gambler’s “system” works, it’s just smoke and mirrors. The chaos factor will triumph in the end. Kids need to be told early and often to believe in themselves and their skills instead of luck. 

In this economy, with four kids (one in college and another headed there in the fall) I work three freelance writing jobs while my husband works full-time and still our home is in danger of foreclosure, our bills are often paid late and the stress wraps around my hope and strangles it.

In that moment when we stop believing in our skills and all that is left is a Higher Power to pull us through, realize that The Power to survive all this is not in a little white ball. The power is in our faith and our families. That’s a win-win.

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