Cultivating Children of Integrity

One time I fell asleep during a U.S. History course that had a unique class tradition. At the end of each class, the professor chose a student to pray. Realizing the perfect opportunity to play a joke, one of my buddies violently grabbed my shoulder and whispered, “Dr. Jones just asked you to pray.”

Feeling disoriented, I looked up at my professor who was silent. Therefore, I naturally assumed that he was waiting on me. “Dear Jesus,” I bellowed out, “thank you for today’s class…”

I quickly realized that I was a complete “moron” when the class broke out in laughter. Needless to say, I was extremely attentive for the remainder of the class.

The thing, however, that I've never forgotten was something Dr. Jones said about George Washington. Apparently President Washington described one of his true desires as being this: I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.

Over the years, I have remembered this statement because it describes something that I value—true integrity. More importantly, as a father, integrity is one of the best character traits I can help my children cultivate.

How Integrity Develops

Integrity is not a value that is simply passed on. It's something that must grow inside us. Growing up, I just assumed that I would wake up one day and I would be a person of integrity. That would be like deciding to run a marathon on the day of the race. Even with the right desire and mental attitude, without the daily training, I'd collapse after a few miles. Likewise, integrity does not develop exclusively from desire. It stems from the daily practice of doing the right things.

As parents, we must help them understand that integrity is a process and not a quick fix. The process of developing integrity begins by helping our children understand two important steps.

1. Becoming aware of our choices.

As parents, we need to teach our children to stop asking what's “wrong” with certain a choice. Instead, they need to ask what's “right” with it. If a child is able to consider whether his actions are moving him closer to or further away from integrity, then a major battle has been won. One of my favorite poems that has become the key for developing integrity in my own life reads:

The choices we make every day,

Dictate the life we lead.

To thine own self be true!

This is same message that Luke 16:10 talks about: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” As a young person, I did not understand the importance of this verse. Since then, it has taken much pain and humiliation to realize how I handle the small things dictates how I react to the bigger ones. I now understand that all the small, seemingly insignificant sins I committed set the tone for my life. Therefore, since I did not guard the “little things,” I hindered the development of integrity.

I try to start each day by thinking about the choices I'll make and how they can dictate my life. For me, “to thine own self be true,” simply means understanding God’s will for my life and being true to His wishes. Likewise, teach your children the value of thinking through their choices and to guard the little decisions they will make every day.

2. Accountability.

The key to maintaining integrity is through accountability. Accountability is simply being responsible to another person for the commitments we’ve made. Christ is clear in the Scriptures that we are to discipline our children (e.g., Proverbs 23:13). Discipline is simply another word for accountability. If we want our children to develop integrity we will make our expectations clear so that our children understand what is right and wrong. And then we will hold them accountable when they make poor choices.

Integrity can develop into the hearts of those who understand the importance of guarding the little things and being accountable. These two things can lead us towards what George Washington most wanted—the character of an honest man.

One of the best ways to hold your child accountable is through a family contract. Five essential features of a family contract include:

  1. Precise wording.
  2. Clear rewards and consequences.
  3. Bonus clause.
  4. Everyone being involved in the creation and re-negotiation of the contract.
  5. Everyone then needs to sign the contract.
Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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