Raising Honest Children in a Dishonest World
My sweet little boy
I was lucky early on. My son was born completely without guile. Even if he knew it was going to get him in trouble, he couldn’t help but tell the truth. Once when he was almost five we had to move. As we were packing, my husband put my spare toothbrushes in a box. Mr. Mason immediately spotted the one that had an Incredible Hulk head that suction cupped to the mirror to hold the brush. He’d had one like it before, but I guess it had been long enough that the novelty was still there. He kept trying to take it and open it, but it wasn’t the time. My husband took it from him and put it back in the box with the instruction that he was to leave it there. Mason looked straight in his face, and without the slightest hint of anger or sarcasm, in his completely matter of fact way, told him “I’ll just wait till you leave the room and take it.” My husband stood up, walked into the bedroom and closed the door. After a count of five, he opened it again to find that Mason, of course, had taken the brush from the box. And believe it or not, the child was stunned to have been caught. Even though he was wrong in his action, he still told the truth, and we have always made sure he knew how much we value his honesty.
I’m sure most can see why, with a child like this, that it took my breath away a couple of months ago when I caught him not just lying, but stealing as well. He’s almost eight now, and is starting to be influenced more by other kids, school, television, etc. I knew things would change as he got older, but I thought I would always be able to trust my boy. So when a $20 bill came up missing, I searched for it, then resigned myself to the fact that it had been taken by fairies and we’d never see it again. He even helped me look for it. The money had been blown off the shelf when the door was open, and the other three $20’s were found. And that’s when he took it. “No, Mom, there’s only three. I don’t see anymore.” It never even occurred to me that my very own son had just lied right to me, or that he had stolen from me. Why would I? He wasn’t capable of it before.
Imagine my shock when the next week the truth came out! We were talking about adding internet service at home, and I told him we couldn’t afford it at the moment. We’re a paycheck to paycheck family right now, and I explained that we had to get caught up on the electricity before we could buy extra stuff, but that we’d get it soon now that Daddy has a new job with good hours. He thought for a second, then reached into his pocket asking “would this $20 help?” Ummmm… where on earth did he get $20? But still being the trusting mom I am, and looking at my boy who never lied, I didn’t immediately put two and two together. He told me that his cousin (who’s almost 18) had found it outside and given it to him. And of course since I had assumed it had blown out the door, I thought maybe he had picked it up in the driveway and asked Mason to give it to me. My first indication that something was awry came when I went to thank Gage and ask him where he found it. Mason jumped in front of me and told me “Gage isn’t here.” I pointed out that I could hear him on the porch. Mason ran ahead of me to try to block my conversation. It still didn’t sink in, though, until Gage said to me “I didn’t find any money, and if I did, I wouldn’t give it to Mason.” And it hit me.
The brutal truth that I couldn’t trust my son 100% all the time, it fell on me like a ton of bricks. My heart was broken. How could he take money from us when he knew we were struggling? And how could he lie to me? TO MY FACE? Was this the same little boy?
I want my children to have the best life possible. For me that means that they will be successful in relationships, they will be able to keep a good job and support themselves, they will have a quality education. It means that they won’t be cheaters and liars, or in jail and on probation. They will live their lives with honor and integrity. Because this is something I place a very high value on I take it into consideration whenever I am making a decision about discipline.
I’m a realist. I know that in this world we are constantly bombarded with examples of dishonesty. From media to our government to kids on the playground, we as parents are fighting a constant battle against a culture of moral ambiguity. Honesty isn’t valued the way it used to be. Popularity is more important. Financial gain is more important. Possessions and beauty are more important. So how do we compete? How do we teach our children just how important it is to be honest and do the right thing, even when it’s hard and even when we really don’t want to?
Consequences are absolutely an important part of this process. My son was grounded for two weeks. In my house grounded means more than no friends can come over and you can’t go to your friend’s house. It means that you won’t watch T.V. this week unless you earn a documentary. It means you won’t get sugar this week. It means that if we are running errands and will be stopping for fast food, we’ll bring a sandwich for you because you lost “extras.” It means you will be doing extra chores. It means that you don’t get video game or computer time. It means you have to write sentences (in this case “I won’t lie or steal.”).
I think it’s important that consequences are imposed because as an adult in the real world consequences for things like stealing can be severe. Children need to understand that there are lines you cannot cross, and that your consequences don’t disappear just because you say sorry and mean it. I know that for some parents what I have described here may seem harsh. I’m not willing to wait till my son has done something that cannot be taken back or repaired to teach him that this behavior is not acceptable. If your child can steal from you without consequence, they will inevitably steal bigger things and from other people. If your child can lie to you without consequence, they will inevitably lie whenever it suits them.
The thing is, for a lot of families this process stops with consequences. Not in my house. Of course most people talk to their children on some level at the time of the offense about what was wrong with what they did. I continue the conversation throughout the consequence. I talk to him about trust and the things he is able to do when I know I can trust him, and the things that I can’t trust him with because of the behavior he’s displayed. I explain to him that his friends won’t want him to come over if they have to worry whether he’s going to leave with their things. I talk to him about how I am afraid to turn my back on him in the store because if he steals I get in trouble there. I talk to him about how much I appreciate knowing that I can ask him anything and get a straight answer. I tell him it makes me feel good to know that I can leave my money lying on the counter and it will still be there when I get back. I tell him how much it hurts me when he violates those trusts. I think that the breakdown in some cases is in this communication. It is so important that we reinforce our expectations to our children every day. It is vital that we reward good behavior.
I also want my son to understand that nothing is free. It isn’t ok for anyone to just take what they want. It’s that sense of entitlement in our society that leads to not only petty theft (like my $20), but fraud, spousal infidelity and even rape. If something has not been offered to you as a gift it simply isn’t yours. If you want it, you have to work for it. As I stated before, part of being grounded in my home includes extra chores. I didn’t stop there. Mason told me that his reason for taking the money was that he wanted to buy a toy bow and arrow set. I let him know that if he had asked me, I would have given him the opportunity to earn the money. We’ve let him work for money before, and he’s used it to buy toys, candy and even an ice cream maker once. I decided that taking this option away because of the theft would not teach him anything. Instead, once his consequences had ended I offered to let him start working toward getting that toy. I knew that the interest would not go away. If he can’t satisfy his desire honestly, he will inevitably start looking for dishonest means again. That is the last thing I want. I am however making him work extra hard to get it. I’ve also let the people closest to us know not to buy him one as a gift, because the lesson needs to include that specific toy.
Walking the walk
Finally, I model for him the exact behavior I want to see from him. He sees that I am honest, even when it’s hard. He sees that if I find a wallet I find the owner without taking the money from it. He sees that when someone I knew had an abundance of money and I was struggling and not sure how we were going to make it that week, and that person dropped $60 they didn’t know they were even carrying, I picked it up and gave it back. I was honest even when I needed that money so bad that it hurt to give it back. He sees that I don’t ever take without asking. I’m also very honest with him. When he asks me about something, I tell him the truth even when it is uncomfortable for me. Of course I tell him the truth in an appropriate way for his age. When he asks me about something sexual in nature I simply tell him “that’s about sex.” He knows that means we will discuss it when he’s older, and believe it or not, he accepts that and lets it drop because I am always honest with him. Our children are aware of EVERY SINGLE MOVE WE MAKE. The most important thing that we can do as parents is to be the people we expect them to become. And we need to talk to them about why we make the decisions we make. They need to understand the thought processes we use in making choices in order to help develop their own critical thinking skills. We parents are human and bound to make mistakes, but they need to see that we try as hard as we can to do the right thing every day.