How to Teach Your Kids About Character

Take Charge on 05.14.12
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Photo: Rene Syler

Pull up a chair as I tell you a story about the yo-yos and my very short life of crime. One day, as a kid growing up in Northern California, my sister and I stole some yo-yos from a local supermarket. She was only following her big sister; I was definitely the brains of the operation.

It wasn't long before we were found out and our mom made us go right back up to the store, ask to speak to the manager, tell him we took the yo-yos, apologize and pay for them from our allowance money. As humiliating as that was it paled in comparison to what we faced when we got home.

I believe that incident marked a true turning point in my moral development. My mother could have brushed it off, saying the store would never notice, or she could have gone and talked to the manager and paid for them herself. Instead she made my sister and I face the music, admit our wrongdoing, pony up the cash, then pay again when we got home. Needless to say neither of us has ever stolen again.

I bring this up because I'm thinking about a story that broke recently about Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson. Thompson left his job in the wake of a resume scandal. Obviously that's not stealing, but he wasn't truthful and was ultimately found out. But his is just one in a series of unethical behavior involving high-profile people. Who could forget South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford admitting to cheating on his wife and lying to his constituents about his whereabouts? Then there's former presidential hopeful John Edwards, accused of misusing campaign funds to pay for his mistress and their baby.

So how do we teach our kids character? The way my mother handled the stolen yo-yos is a big part of it, according to the Josephson Institute Center For Youth Ethics. Among other things, the center urges parents to explain the importance of being trustworthy, taking a strong stand and not being what it calls, "Value Neutral". In other words, being clear on your expectations and then looking for teachable moments to bring it all home.

The Scott Thompson story, as well as the others, represent perfect teachable moments for kids -- and timely ones, too, because it's not just people in the news exhbiting questionable ethics; it happens in their own classrooms as incresing numbers of students admit to cheating at school.

The lesson for my kids is the same one I've been talking about since they were little; taking the high road is never easy, but it's always right.

How do you teach ethics to your children?

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