November 03, 2006

Teaching Children Honesty, Integrity, and Responsibility

Another in Series of Letters from Concerned Parents

(If you would like to submit a question for Mac to answer please feel free to post your question at the bottom of the page!)

What Should Parents Do When Children Make Mistakes

Dear Mac,
The reason I've written to you is because tonight my 14 year old son took our others son's car for a joy ride with a few of his friends, one of whom has a drivers license. Our son was driving when they rear-ended another car causing some minor damage to the other car, but also doing about $800 damage to our car. Rather than see our son get busted for driving without alicense, the boy with the driver's license told the policeman that he was driving and he got a citation for leaving the seen of an accident.

I think they all should tell the truth, perhaps relieving the kid of his ticket and forcing my son to face the natural consequences of his decisions. What do you think? I await your response.

Concerned Mom(From Canada)


Dear Mom,

My answer to your question begins with a question. Thise is your son and you must ask yourself, "What do I wish to teach my son?" The answer to that question will most likely answer your question for you!

If you wish to teach your children that honesty is always the best policy, then there is little choice to be made. If you wish to teach your children that when they are in a fix that the best policy is to try to alter the outcome of poor decisions by distorting the truth or lying outright about what has happened, then you have other choices available to you!

Once You Have Decided… The Strategy Is Often Very Obvious

You know your values and you know what you want your kids to do, be, or have. If these were my children and this was my decision to make, this would be a very easy decision to make. I would have my child go to the authorities and tell them exactly what happened, including the falsification of the facts in having another kid falsely claim to be the driver. The consequences of this mistake that the "system" dealt out would be taken and supported by me. If the court decided that a suspension of driving privileges was in order, I would support it. If the court mandated a fine, I would see to it that my son had to come up with the money to pay the fine. If the courts mandated restitution to the damaged party I would see to it that my son worked to pay them back.

Now, let's get to some of my advice for you if you are still with me on the message about honesty and accepting the consequences of our actions. The most common failure in cases like this is to assume that the societal consequences (punishment, sentencing, and fines) have taught a lesson. Those things do not teach! Often, they simply define the "game" and make kids more careful to not get caught the next time! But, those consequences rarely teach a child how to make a better decision the next time. That is your job!

An Opportunity To Teach

If this were my child I would simply view this event as a wonderful opportunity to teach decision-making skills and values! Be sure to understand, teaching a lesson of this nature would be much more difficult and time consuming. It is harder to teach a lesson about honesty than it is to just act disgusted or angry with your child. But teaching a lesson about how to apply honesty as a decision making tool would actually wind up changing your son for the better... forever! If you are interested in teaching it will involve a whole different set of tactics and here are some suggestions.

1. I would start with a discussion of WHY we are a society of rules and laws. Freedom does not mean that there are no rules. Freedom means more rules... more rules that can be handled by individuals. The more rules we can handle without requiring the interference of government or police... the more freedom we have! This means that we must be honest if we make a mistake. That way the authorities do not have to get involved. Honesty by citizens insures a minimum of interference from government and maximum freedom for us all. Respect for private property means that our own property will be respected. Respect for rules and laws means that we can count on others to respect rules and laws. A stop sign is not an annoyance... it is an aid. A stop sign makes the behavior of others very predictable and safe. Driving with a license makes the roads safe for all. We must respect this law also.

In the case of your son’s accident, the lesson is that when a person causes damage to another’s property they must pay for the damage that they do. If they break a law they must serve the penalty that the law mandates.
Home Is a Safe Place To Bring Problems

Teaching Opportunities Rather than Just Mistakes

2. Next, I would jump on this as an opportunity to teach my child that our home is a place where we all bring our mistakes and learn from them. I would show my child by my actions that mistakes in judgment are common among us all but the key is to learn from our mistakes and to be sure to not repeat the mistakes. To let my actions speak I would have to refrain from anger or outbursts of emotion. I would have to be reasoned and calm in my answers and discussions.

Making Decisions Ahead of Time

3. Next, I would try to teach my child that intelligence is a valuable commodity but that it is almost worthless in the “heat of battle”. Most of the really critical and big decisions in life must be made BEFORE you are in the situation. I would begin to enter into discussions with my kids about some of the anticipated situations they might encounter in the near future and begin to go through with them some of the wise decisions that they can make ahead of time.

Create Opportunities To Teach Before Any Crisis Exists

4. Next, I would try to engage my sons regularly in various kinds of games and sports to establish a relationship of trust between them and me so that in the future they would not see me as someone to deceive or someone to get away with things. I would try to establish that if they ever were in doubt about something they could ask me and I would listen and not blow up but rather I would be a source of sound advice.

Teach Some General Rules for Making Decisions for Use in Unexpected Circumstances

5. Next, I would try to establish some general rules of conduct for my child to use if they found themselves in a tough spot with a tough decision before them. Simple rules like: "is this the right thing to do?" "Is this fair to all concerned?" "Will this build better relationships?" "Is this legal?" "Is this healthy?" etc.

Teach Children Some "Sure Fire" Ways to Remove Themselves from Difficult Situations

6. Finally, I would make sure that my kids had a sure fire way to get out of difficult situations. In our family, we had a "secret word." I told my kids that if they were ever in a tough situation they could call me and just say the secret word and somehow give the address (fake like you are ordering pizza or something) and I would show up and get them out of the situation, no questions asked.

In the case of your son’s accident, you would not have been able to get him out of the situation. The damage of the wreck was done. But, you could have gotten there in time to help him decide how he would deal with the difficult circumstances.

(Please note that all that I have done in the course of answering this question for this mother was to apply the principles of our Parenting with Dignity Curriculum. Wouldn't it help you to have a copy of a set of guidelines for making the big decisions about raising your children?)

Good luck with your actions with your boys. Please let me know how things go for you.

Mac Bledsoe


Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, Mr. Bledsoe, for your concrete suggestions, i.e. playing games/sports with my kids to build the opportunity to talk and to teach. I realize, through this family's unfortunate experience, that I have been talking AT and many times yelling AT my son, thinking I am teaching him our values. I appreciate your new ideas. I am ordering your book today. said...

Dear Mac,
I am in serious help for my 10 yr. old boy.I caught him for the 2nd time trying to start something on fire.I asked him about it and he always lies to me on a continuous basis.I had a police officer come over and talk to him but it seems like it doesn't bother him,I also took him to the fire station to have the firemen talk to him,but it just seemed to go in one ear and out the other,he was looking elsewhere when they were trying to talk to him.I am in serious need for an opinion on how to handle his behavior.

Mac said...

Dear Man in Black Fan,

First of all, I too became a fan of Johnny Cash after he took control of his life. He eventually became a man of real purpose and virtue who helped millions.

Now for an answer to your very pressing but solvable problem with your son. Here are some steps for you to go through:

1. Starting fires is not something to be taken lightly and I do not think that you are. You have a right to be alarmed! This is a perfect case of why I am opposed to the use of punishment as a parenting tool... it is failure based. The only way that you can use punishment is to wait for the child to do something wrong to bring the punishment into use. With "lighting fires" you simply cannot wait until your son lights another fire to start giving him guidance. You simply must act BEFORE he has another incident. The first step is to make sure that in your home there is absolutely no chance for your son to light a fire! Remove all forms of fire starting from your home. That means matches, lighters, and any other types of fire lighting tools. Next, if your stove is gas, turn off the gas outside where the gas line comes into the house or where your stove hooks onto the gas line. Only turn it on when you must use it. If your stove is electric, turn off the circuit breaker to the stove so that the stove cannot be turned on by your son in an attempt to light a fire. Remove free standing heaters, etc. from your home if they have electric coils or heating elements that could light a fire if your son were to stick something in them.

In short, make your home totally void of any means of starting a fire. I believe that you ought to tell your son what you are doing but make sure that he does not watch you turn off the gas or turn off the circuit breaker. Just let him know that there is going to be no fire starting possibility in your home until he can demonstrate that he knows safe practices.

2. Now comes the really important work for you as a parent. You must now ask yourself, "what is the desired goal with my son?" In your letter you talk about what you do NOT want. You have very precisely stated to me what it is that he has done wrong and you have wisely taken him to the fire department to have the firemen talk to him but I am sure that they too talked about what you do NOT want. You need to decide what it is that you DO want your son TO DO! This may seem like a small distinction but it is not! It is all of the difference in the world.

Imagine for a moment that I just told you, "Do not kick elephants!" I just told you to NOT kick elephants! Yet, your mind went into the sentence and crossed out the "NOT" and what are you picturing? Kicking an elephant! It is impossible to picture NOT kicking an elephantwithout an elephant in the picture! You would never have thought of picturing elephant kicking until I told you to NOT do it!

Now you may comply with my wishes and not kick elephants, but you still have no idea what it is that I want you TO DO! If you do not teach your son what you want him to do, he will have the same dilemma! He will have a picture in his head of not starting fires (that will include matches and a fire) but he will have no idea what it is that you want him to do!

Now, I take you back to the question that I asked earlier, "What do you want him TO DO?" If you do not teach him what to do in the presence of the tools for starting fires, it will be necessary for you to follow him around for the rest of his life turning off the gas, circuit breakers, and hiding matches and lighters! My gosh what will he do when you are gone? I guess that you will have to hire a replacement to follow him around for the remaining days of his life. Sounds ridiculous doesn't it?

He is not my son, but it would seem that what you want him TO DO is to use the tools of fire lighting, safely, and appropriately. If so, teach your son how to do that!

If you want him to understand how and where to use fire starting tools, then start teaching him how and where to use them... safely! If you want him to learn to use fire starting tools in appropriate and safe places, then start teaching him where to do that! Most certainly you do not want him to never use fire! As demonstrated by removing and turning off the various fire starting possibilities in your home, there are many very wonderful, positive, and beneficial uses for fire! Teach your son proper respect for those wonderful uses of fire! Teach him how to use them safely. Teach him to use them wisely. Teach him to use them effectively!

3. Once you have taught him safe, appropriate, and effective uses for fire, have him help you to turn on the various tools in your home. Only do this after he has demonstrated his understanding and skill at using them safely and effectively. If he cannot demonstrate to you that he knows how to do this, then try another way to teach him. But continue teaching until he gets it!

You have talked to him. You have tried taking him to the fire station for the firemen to talk to him. Talking didn't work in either situation. Admit it and find another way to teach the same concept. Do not quit teaching until you succeed! You have tried two ways; you talking to him and firemen, the experts, talking to him. Like I said, it looks like "talking" has not been very effective. Try some other ways to teach him. Show him. Let him experience some of the negatives of improper use of fire. Burn up one of his favorite toys. Sounds radical but it might be what he needs to experience in order to have a proper respect for fire. Let him experience the many positive uses of fire. While you are with him, let him use fire in an appropriate manner. Let him light a burner on a stove to cook one of his favorite meals. If he violates, in any way, the safe procedures that you have presented to him. Turn off the stove and let him eat the food uncooked and cold.

Get creative and start thinking. You must teach him to use fire safely and appropriately so that he may be a productive and independent person who does not need your supervision to use fire!

Please let me know how this goes for you.