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Raising a Positive Child in a Negative World

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Teaching Children to Have Integrity

by Mary O’Donohue


Mary O’Donohue

Mary is a best-selling author and featured writer. She is also a spokesperson for Ashoka’s “Start Empathy" Initiative. Read more »

Sorry, Mary O’Donohue is no longer taking questions.

Ever have a parenting epiphany? A moment when something just makes you think, “Whoa, wait a minute. I've been doing this all wrong! I need to change direction.” That happened to me a few years ago when my daughter Grace was five. I caught her trying to steal a candy bar at the checkout counter of a local store. When I told her to put it back, she looked at me as if to say, “There’s nothing to see here. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Even as her 10 year-old brother chided, “You’re gonna get in trouble,” Grace just pretended nothing had happened. Of course I insisted she put it back, and I remember putting her into her booster seat in the car afterwards, and asking, “Why did you do that? What have daddy and I taught you about stealing and lying?” She was crying at that point. And then it hit me. What had my husband and I taught her about stealing and lying? Clearly, not enough.

And there it was. My parenting epiphany. One of those “teachable moments” between parent and child, but this time, I was the one learning the lesson. I realized that most of the time when it came to teaching my two kids about right and wrong, I was coming in after the fact. I was being a reactive parent instead of a proactive one. Though my husband and I were certainly doing our best to lead by example, it was simply not enough. We had to change our approach.

It took me a little while but I came up with a plan. I decided to focus on teaching my children 12 values over the course of a year, spending a month at a time on each one, such as gratitude, compassion, respect for others, and integrity. When it came to Integrity Month, I wanted my children to know that integrity is about more than just being honest. It’s about doing what is right for the right reasons. Not for attention, accolades, or rewards - but simply because it is the right thing to do.

And I realized that when my husband and I told our kids to “tell the truth,” we were sending an incomplete message. Of course it’s wrong to tell lies. But we as parents can go beyond that. We can teach our children that telling the truth is good, but living the truth is better.

Now, that concept might seem pretty abstract to kids - indeed the idea of integrity itself is very abstract. So how do we make it real for our children? I have found that one of the most effective ways to do this is with a simple exercise. So every day during Integrity Month, I ask my children a question designed to help them tap into and develop empathy - the key ingredient in integrity. Exercises like this are particularly effective for children in the 5 - 12 year old age range, though it’s never too late! I encourage you to try this with your kids. Here are some examples of powerful ways to talk about integrity with children:

1. Invent scenarios that encourage children to think about their choices. It’s important as parents to give our children a non-judgmental space in which to share their responses. More than anything else, you want their honest answers. It isn't a test; It’s more of an exploration into integrity, into learning what the right thing is and how to actually do it, especially when there is peer pressure involved. And certainly not every choice they make will be popular with everyone. Let your kids know that it’s not about what other people think.

“What would you do if…”
…you saw your best friend stealing a scarf from the teacher’s desk?

…you noticed that your grandmother dropped a $20 bill the same day you wanted to buy a popular new video game?

…you saw the last piece of chocolate cake in the fridge but knew your sister was hoping to have it for dessert?

…you jokingly said something at recess and later heard it repeated as a rumor?

…you witnessed a classmate being bullied in the hallway at school?

2. Show diagrams. Sometimes - often, in fact - there will be gray areas. When this happened with my kids and a particular question of the day, I actually took out a piece of paper and drew an image of two boxes with some space in between. I colored one in fully and left the other one blank. Between the two boxes was an area that I shaded in slightly. That was the gray area.

3. Help children empathize. I told my kids that sometimes we are faced with ethical decisions that fall into that gray area, and we are not sure how to proceed. In that case, I suggest they ask themselves a few more questions like “How does my decision affect others? Am I considering other people’s feelings? Can I imagine myself in someone else’s shoes?” This is where children can rely on empathy. If they can identify with the person who would be most hurt in a situation, like the teacher whose scarf was stolen, they can find the most ethical choice.

Often kids don’t realize how the things they do - and don’t do - affect other people. Using empathy as a guidepost to navigate these difficult dilemmas makes all the difference. What other ways can you think of to teach children empathy and integrity?

Sorry, Mary O’Donohue is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.

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