Teaching Honesty in Todays World
My husband and I are teaching a six-week parenting series in our community on raising kids in the twenty-first century. It’s not a formula-based class that guarantees if you follow six simple steps, you’ll have great kids as a result. It’s more of an honest assessment of our own lessons in parenting kids and working with teens in a public school over the last three decades. As we’re currently raising two college students, a high schooler and a middle schooler, we’ve learned lessons the hard way and had surprising results from things we didn’t think were important.
In raising kids to be leaders in business, family and community for the twenty-first century, setting the standard for honesty is an expectation you have to be intentional about. Today’s culture doesn’t support honesty like past generations. Cheating is epidemic, online behavior gives opportunities for false-representation of ideas or personal behavior, and technology has opened the door for all kinds of dishonest business practices and scams. Being honest almost could be archaic in this environment.
Yet to raise kids who will be honest adults and leaders with integrity in future generations, those of us parenting need to be intentional about living and modeling honestly ourselves while coaching our children on how to be honest, even if it costs them something. Today’s climate of greed and individualism perpetates the moral relativism of honest. But as a saying in our bathroom at home says,
“Honestly, when in doubt, tell the truth.”
How do you teach and model honesty for today’s teens and tweens? Here are ten principles we’ve practiced.
1. Practice what you preach. No matter what you’re trying to teach your kids, if you live the opposite of what you’re telling your teen to do, you lose credibility in their eyes. Teens pick up hypocrisy quicker than you are aware you’re living a double standard. If you expect your kids to be honest, it has to be your lifestyle, too.Live what you believe. This is different that practice what you preach, because a lot of the morals we teach our kids is simply what we live rather than what we say. This is tough, but holds us as parents in honesty in front of our kids.
2. Don’t ignore cheating as a form of dishonesty. Your kids have more opportunity to cheat today than ever before with internet and electronic assignments. This is probably the most difficult part of teaching honesty because your kids will see classmates cheat in a variety of ways to get good grades. Our kids have been confronted with assignments where they’ve reported “everyone else” is taking the easy way out by being dishonest in one way or another. Our expectation always has been that the work they put their name to has be theirs. My husband and I are both high school educators and we can usually tell dishonest work even if we can’t prove it. Whether a student gets caught or not, when a he or she cheats, their credibility and character is tainted, if not ruined, in the eyes of the adult who sees the dishonesty. In the long run, cheating robs the cheater of character and future opportunities they may never know they’ve ruined, like poor opinions in the eyes of peers and adults around them.
3. Share examples of when you’ve been honest and the positive results that came from it. Most of our kids don’t see us make hard choices in life. Adults have opportunities to be dishonest every day. Each time we choose to live honestly, we are modeling behavior for our kids, but they often don’t see it. SImple things like not cheating on tax returns may be something you do every year, but your kids don’t see that act of private honestly. Talk with your kids about this with a simple conversation about taxes, the temptation to be dishonest, and why you choose not to. Think of other choices you make to live honestly in your daily lives and share that with your kids. Sharing these examples with your teens will give them strength in private moments where they know if mom and dad privately make honest decisions, it might be easier for them to.
4. Be honest in your conversations with them. As a parent, this is something I constantly have to think through. Being honest means if I say I’d do something with them, I need to make sure I follow through with that. Otherwise, things shouldn’t be promised. Honestly just isn’t in telling the truth about something, it’s in making truthful statements. Kids learn by their tweens to either trust mom or dad’s word or not. This starts with simple things but can make a big impact when their perception of mom or dad is that they lie because the things you tell them aren’t truthful in practice. The words we share with our kids are important. If what you’re about to say isn’t fully truthful (“I’ll take you to the ballgame this weekend’), then don’t say it, or say it with expectations you can meet (“If I can’t take you to that ballgame, we’ll at least go throw the football around when I’m done with the lawn work this weekend”).
5. Be honest in front of them when talking to other people if you expect them to be honest to others. Kids know we’re dishonest even when telling a white lie to a cashier clerk, a police officer when getting pulled over, or to a friend we don’t want to hang out with. White lies may be justifiable, but kids don’t understand the various components of morality in adult behavior. Truth is something that’s black and white to kids. It’s humbling to be honest with others when you know your kids are watching, but it’s teaching them a bigger lesson about honesty than anything you can say to them about it. When they see you be honest in small things, your credibility and respect in the eyes of your teen or tween grows.
6. Give your kids appropriate words to be truthful without opening them up to social vulnerability. Your child may not want to go to a party because they know there will be drugs, alchohol, or sexual behavior they don’t want to be a part of. But they might not be strong enough to say no to the invitation or tell friends why they don’t want to go. Give your kids options of honesty to get themselves out of difficult social situations. Instead having your child lie by saying something false about why they can’t come “My grandpa died,” give them something that makes you the fall guy instead of them. “My family is going out that night and my mom is making me go” then go somewhere and tell your teen they have to go. You may only go to McDonald’s, but you’re being honest about what you’re doing, teaching your teen to be honest in tough situations without making them socially vulnerable when they don’t feel strong.
7. Share with them good outcomes you’ve received being honest. Honesty often revolves around not wanting to get caught. But it’s more than that – it’s being honest even if there’s no immediate reward. Share your own stories of the positive outcomes in your life from specific instances of being honest.
8. Be honest with your kids when they ask tough questions. It’s a parent’s nightmare when you teen asks a question about your past or your own behavior as a teen or college student. When this happened to me, I knew it was a critical moment in my relationship with my teen. Everything in me said to lie to my child, but I knew if I did, the truth I wanted to hide would at some point be found out and then the relationship with my child would be damaged for being dishonest. It was one of the hardest moments in parenting, but it was worthwhile to humble myself and be honest.
9. Equip your kids when they need to be honest and stand by them when they do. This may require difficult situations where your teen may need to be honest about a mistake they’ve made or they need to report something they’re aware of that will harm someone if it’s not told. Modeling this personally as a lifestyle gives them strength if they time comes your teen needs to take a hard stand and so what’s right, regardless of the consequences that might be hurtful to them or someone else. There are life-defining moments for you teen. As you’ve lived these principles before them, you provide leadership and equip them to be honest even if it hurts.
10. When in doubt, tell the truth. Whether it’s little or big, as you live this principle in your life day in and day out, your kids will know what the standard is in your house without you even telling them. I’m learning from my college students that the values they’re making their own as adults are not the big ones I thought I taught them with eloquent words, they’re ones we’ve live out day in and day out. When we intentionally choose what values we want our kids to learn and live those out in front of them, we’re equipping them to live with those values as adults. It’s still their choice to accept those values, but the validity and confidence they receive when values are honestly displayed before can’t be replicated any other way.