March 8, 2019

Dear Drama Observers,

I wrote an article a few years back entitled, “Infecting Your Kids With Integrity” which I’ve posted a couple of times before in The Drama Review. I’m reposting it again today for two reasons.

First, to be quite honest, I just flat ran out of time to write the new letter I’d been planning. What with traveling and speaking this week, I’ve been busier than a mosquito in a nudist colony, and my margins for producing anything new have frustratingly evaporated. I’ll get back on track next week.

Second, integrity is an unheralded and undervalued human attribute these days. As a society, we have this annoying tendency to exalt people who grab attention—however they’re able to do it—more than people of behind-the-scenes good character. I found a notable exception in this week’s People Magazine featuring an expose on Mark Harmon and his wife Pam Dawber. We are told,

After 40 years in the spotlight — and 16 years on NCIS — Mark Harmon is opening up about what matters most: his marriage, his kids and the value of a hard day’s work.

May his tribe increase! Drama People may capture our attention, but people of integrity capture our hearts.

Here’s that article:

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“It’s not who you are in life that matters,” a famous American father once told his later-to-be-famous sons. “It’s who people think you are.” When a person adopts this way of thinking, a split develops between the public and private, more emphasis being placed on image management than character development. A person of integrity, on the other hand, values consistency. That is, he strives to be the same in private as he is in public. He is who he appears to be. His private behavior matches the public perception. He’s the real deal. 

How do we raise kids who possess integrity in a culture that seems to value image more than character? Like many things, integrity is more often caught than taught.  There are at least three ways to infect our kids with integrity.

Be Truthful

Noted professor and author, Howard Hendricks, once said, “You cannot impart what you do not possess.” If we don’t demonstrate personal integrity, our kids will never catch the infection, so to speak.

My wife once made a grocery store run with our children in tow. After shopping, she noticed that the clerk had miscalculated the change, giving her too much. She got the kids back out of the car, stood in line, and returned the money. The dumbfounded clerk looked at her as if she had just arrived from Neptune. But that one visual display of honesty carried more impact than a hundred verbal lessons. Furthermore, keeping the overpayment would have sent another message: It’s okay to be a phony.  What you say doesn’t have to match what you do.

Be Transparent

But what about those times when we blow it? When our inconsistencies display themselves? The discomfort of that inclines us to engage in cover-ups, to pretend, or to act as though the blooper never happened.

In the wake of a mistake, we have the opportunity to teach our kids something else very important about integrity.  That is, when we blow it (which we will), we need to acknowledge it, take responsibility for it, and correct it.  This keeps us off the slippery slope populated by integrity-deficient people, where mistake-free portrayals are commonplace. Personal integrity is hurt not by errors but by refusing to acknowledge them. Politicians are sometimes told, “The public tolerates confession better than deception.”

After finishing graduate school in Oregon, I accepted a job offer in Tennessee. After four straight days in a mini-van, all five of us had become the worst versions of ourselves, me included. Figuring I needed to exercise my confession muscle, I remarked to my 10-year-old daughter, “You know, we haven’t treated each other very well on this trip, have we?” She replied, “Yeah, I can understand mom losing her cool but, Dad, you’re a psychologist!” The friends we were visiting loaned me their spatula so I could scrape my self-esteem off the floor. Confession doesn’t always feel good, but it’s a necessary part of integrity development.

Be Talkative

Public rule-keeping alongside private rule-breaking requires silence. Talking with our kids makes it harder for them to keep the private and public in separate compartments. The lines of communication are kept open by:

  • Spending time with them. Often, the subjects in the greatest need of airtime come up on their time tables, not ours. 
  • Listening to them. Nothing shuts down talking like the lack of listening. Encouraging them to discuss everything (even if we’re not particularly interested) keeps the conversation going.
  • Welcoming questions. We should create an atmosphere where no question, regardless of the subject matter, is out of bounds. If their questions threaten us, they’ll stop asking them. Or they’ll ask someone else who may provide answers contrary to our family’s values.
  • Focusing on relationship more than rules. If we overemphasize rules, we’ll have neither rule-keeping nor relationship. If we emphasize relationship, we’ll have it and they’ll be more likely to keep the rules.
  • Discussing the “why’s” as well as the “what’s”. If we explain what to do without explaining why we do it, they’ll probably stop doing it when no one is watching.
  • Having fun. Laughter is a verbal lubricant. The more enjoyable it is for our kids to be with us, the greater the influence potential.

If you’re unlike the previously-mentioned famous American father, the message you want to impart is, “The person you are in private should match the person you are in public.” That’s integrity. If we, as parents, demonstrate consistency, acknowledge personal flaws, and encourage openness, the integrity we seek to instill is attainable in a culture hungry for authentic, real-deal people.

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Addendum:

You Might Be An Integrity Infector If…

  • Your kids talk to you so much that you get worn out at times.
  • Your kids like being with you.
  • You like being with your kids.
  • You and your kids joke around and laugh a lot together.
  • You and your kids handle your mistakes humorously.  Your kids tease you about them.
  • You can talk somewhat intelligently about what’s going on in their world and you ask questions about what’s going on in their world.
  • They ask you “why” questions. You welcome and applaud questions of any sort.
  • You can handle their “why” questions without being overly threatened by them.
  • They display remorse when caught in misbehaviors.
  • On occasion, they admit to misbehaviors even before you discover them.
  • You use incidences of misbehavior to explain why correct behavior is important.
  • Your kids don’t lie well. You’re able to tell when they are fabricating.
  • They’ve seen you be honest on occasions when you could have gotten away with dishonesty.
  • Your kids seem to understand why you have the rules you do. They ask questions about them more than they complain about them.

Till next week.

4 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    Integrity is what I speak of when I refer to someone as being “solid”. And reading something more than once usually results in picking up something we missed the first time around. I also think this particular blog is the best and most important one you have written ( that I have read ) thus far.

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks, Adele. I agree that “solid” is another word capturing the concept of integrity. I appreciate your feedback.

      Reply
  2. Ed Koepp
    Ed Koepp says:

    Dear Alan: My father was incredibly dictatorial. He was a strong advocate of “What people think and say about you is more important than how you think about yourself”. This was difficult for me to swallow. It seemed to me that Virginia Satir’s concept of being congruent with our selves was critical and desirable for one’s well being. I love your metaphor about “infectious integrity” and your suggested ways of embracing this wonderful personal quality. It seems to me that practicing these suggestions is a wonderful gift to those we encounter as we go about the world.

    Reply

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