Teaching Integrity to Our Children
My husband and I have had long conversations about what type of adults we want to release into the world ten to twenty years from now. What strengths, beauty, and truth will our kids carry into their universities, their friendships, their communities, and their future workspaces?
How can we raise them to be ready to partner with justice and lead with kindness? What do they need now to help them make educated and intentional choices then?
Questions like these have helped us formulate the big picture of how we parent and where we put our time, energy, and focus. And from the big picture, we’ve made a list of our family’s values: those things most important to the Laffoon family, and our commitment to how we live our lives.
In my last article, we discussed the importance of family values. Family values offer us a vision and a road map to clarify where we are going as a family.
They highlight the paths that help us get to our desired destination, and they also make it simpler to identify when we’ve gotten distracted and “off course.”
One of our values is integrity. The way we define integrity to our kids is: “always doing what is right, no matter what.”
Of course, integrity is bigger and fuller than this quick little sentence. But for small children, it is enough to ground a key concept they can understand, and it will be the foundation for expanding their comprehension of integrity in the future.
Conversations about integrity center, mainly, around the two halves of our definition. First, we continually establish a sense of “what is right.”
Caution: this could easily turn into a hundred smaller family value lessons! And that’s too much; we will lose the importance of integrity itself if we get too distracted.
Real-world examples help our kids start piecing together their understanding of “what is right” (which, later, will evolve into a greater understanding of justice, ethics, and morality).
Even as a toddler, most children have a sense of actions that would be harmful to someone else, or words that would communicate a truth or a lie.
As our children make choices with actions and words in the home, my husband and I connect what we observe with our family values. We avoid doing this in a way that involves shame or blame—we don’t want our kids to grow bitter towards our values!
Rather, we try to point out when an action or word reflects a specific value—when our kids “get it right.”
“Wow, buddy! I see you put your trains back in the bin without me asking! You know it’s important to clean up after yourself. Thank you for doing what is right. Your choice shows great integrity.”
“Thank you for practicing your piano songs before going outside to play. I know that took patience. And I noticed you really focused and played them slowly, trying to do your best. That shows integrity.”
Of course, there will be times our kids make choices that are not in line with our values. And many gracious and loving opportunities to connect poor choices with our family values will present themselves.
But this is not the goal—we do not want to use our family value words to shame or point out what is wrong. We want to keep these words as positive as possible.
Reflecting on our family values in light of a poor choice is usually a longer conversation, and it involves soft words, gentle touch, and reassurance that the child is capable of making a different choice in the future.
I also find it powerful to share a personal story of when I made poor choice, and how I could have chosen a better decision.
Children remember these stories more than lectures, and modeling vulnerability keeps our lesson in check and on point—we aren’t trying to be perfect. We are trying to make good, honest choices.
Second, to teach and model integrity, we have to focus on the “no matter what” portion of our definition.
In our home, we use phrases like “even when you don’t feel like it,” “even if you don’t like it,” or “even when no one is watching.” We point out that, sometimes, doing what is right is hard. Sometimes it slows us down.
Sometimes it costs us something personal.
Sometimes it means admitting we are wrong.
Sometimes it means someone else gets the better end of the deal.
But we still choose what is right (or best, or good, or honest).
Again, we try to clarify the “no matter what” in instances when our kids have already made a great decision and modeled the desired behavior.
Especially when it was a hard win for them. We give praise for making good decisions when no one was watching, when no one told them to do it, or when it was a “second try”—when a poor choice was righted and turned into a favorable outcome.
In addition to the two halves of our integrity definition, my husband and I look for ways to expand the concept of integrity as our kids grow and experience new situations and choices. We want them to know that integrity is bigger than following the rules—integrity is leading with truth and goodness.
It is not just something you do on the outside or about how you perform. Integrity is deeper—it is something that flows out into the world from the inside of who we are. Integrity is actions or words that expose the true nature of our hearts.
Every family’s value list will—and should—look somewhat different. Maybe underlying principles are similar, but our families are unique.
Our experiences, our culture, and our beliefs make us sensitive to and aware of different aspects of life. Stepping back and reviewing what characteristics and traits you’d love to gift your children before they leave your home is a great place to start.
Also, head back to the previous article to review more specifics on creating and implementing your own list of family values.