We’ve all heard people describe as having integrity. And when complimenting people, you often hear “Oh, he’s a man of integrity.” But what does that mean?
Integrity is often equated with honesty. And while the two are “kissing cousins” in the virtue world, there are subtle differences.
Honesty is about telling the truth, both in word and deed. Integrity goes a bit further. It means being true – to who you are, what you say, and what you believe. And doing so even when no one is around to see.
Here’s an example. Before students enter the taekwondo training floor, they bow to the flags (the US and Korean flags) as a sign of respect. But what happens when no one is around? When the lights are off, instead of on? When nobody will really know if you bowed or just left the floor after a long day?
A person of integrity bows. Why? Not just because she is “supposed” to. It’s a mark of who you are. Respect is one of the core Black Belt values in taekwondo. If you have truly embraced those values, they are part of who you are. And integrity demands that you make that sign of respect, that bow, even if no one in the world is around to see you do it.
Like honesty, integrity is a tough thing for kids to wrap their heads around. They want to impress their peers and teachers – even their parents. And sometimes, it can be tempting to use a seemingly harmless “white lie” to help them do it.
And as with honesty, kids need to be taught the value of integrity and to make it the default position in their lives. The best teaching is a blend of word and deed – and a several of those methods look a lot like teaching honest.
Going with your gut. People poo-poo gut instinct, preferring to make decisions based on “logic.” But your subconscious, and your body, know more than you give them credit for. When taking a multiple-choice test, the teacher will often say, “If there’s one answer that jumps out at you, that’s probably the right one.” Logic can do a lot of good things, and it’s often necessary to think through a decision. But don’t over-think. If a child’s initial reaction is “There’s no way I should do that,” help her learn to listen to that instinct and decide accordingly. She might decide wrong once in a while, but a lot of times, that gut instinct will lead down the exact right path.
Public or private? This goes back to the “what if nobody is watching?” question. A person of integrity will make the same decision all the time, whether it’s before an auditorium full of people or no one except the mouse in the corner. When faced with a decision, teach your child to ask, “would I do the same thing in front of my parent/friend/teacher?” If the answer is “no,” rethink the plan of action. Because kids should be confident and comfortable with his decisions, no matter what the size, or makeup, of the audience.
Ends and means. “The ends justify the means.” Adults are familiar with this saying, but it’s another hard one for kids. If the end is an “A” on the book report, isn’t anything that gets that “A” a good decision? Not necessarily. An honestly earned “B” is more valuable – in the long and short run – than a dishonestly earned “A.” And like honesty, you only need to be caught in a dishonest act once or twice to get a reputation as a cheat or someone of low integrity. Learning that what is “right” isn’t always what is “easy” is a hard lesson, but one that it is essential to learn.
Does it pass the “eye test”? This is another concept shared with honesty. The ability to look someone in the eye after making a decision is important. Eye contact is often a sign of honesty, and being unable to look someone in the eye while speaking is a classic sign of lying. If your child cannot answer “yes” to “Could I look my parent/friend/teacher in the eye after I do this?” chances are it’s not the best decision to make, or behavior to do.
Use a mirror. We all have to look at ourselves every day. And even if no one else knows what we do – we do. And every time your child brushes his teeth, or combs his hair, he’s going to see his reflection and know how he behaved. Will this make him comfortable or uncomfortable? If you can’t take pride in your actions, look in that mirror (virtual or physical) and say, “Yes, I’m happy I did this,” then you probably want to rethink. A sense of shame when reflecting on choices is a sure-fire sign they should go in a different direction. Because who wants to live a lifetime of regrets?
Knowing what integrity is can be tricky. But by using the tricks above, parents can help kids make it a part of their lives, so that someday they too can be describe as a “person of integrity.”
A software technical writer by day, Mary Sutton is the mother of two teens and has been making her living with words for over ten years. She is the author of the Hero’s Sword middle-grade fantasy series, writing as M.E. Sutton, and The Laurel Highlands Mysteries police-procedural series, writing as Liz Milliron. Visit her online at www.marysuttonauthor.com.