Do the Right Thing—Even If No One Is Watching

Teaching our children the importance of integrity sets them up for success in life
July 9, 2020 Updated: July 12, 2020

“The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world, is to be in reality what we would appear to be; and if we observe, we shall find, that all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice of them.” — Socrates

When my son Jacob was little, he used to tell on himself.

No matter what little thing he’d done, he would always seek me out to confess. “Momma, I knocked the picture over,” or “Momma, I broke my train.” He seemed to have a need to let me know what he’d done, so he could correct his wrongdoing and make things right. I always found his innocence and honesty refreshing.

These confessions continued until around the fourth or fifth grade, and then I started to notice a change. He’d quit telling on himself, and at times would even not want to tell me if he had done something he shouldn’t have, and sometimes he’d even try to cover it up. Of course, by that time, he’d had many new, outside influences, along with an increasing desire to not get in trouble.

As an osteopathic physician, I’ve been trained to look at the whole person—mind, body, and spirit—with the understanding that these each influence our health and well-being. If we ignore one part, the whole cannot be well. Our moral character and values have a vital role to play here. To quote Socrates again, “There are two kinds of disease of the soul, vice and ignorance.” It was with this knowledge that I sought to help my son understand why, and how, he should do the right thing.

It makes up the very core of who we are.

Life Lessons

From the time he was little, on weekend mornings, Jacob would climb into my bed and we’d have our “life lessons” talks, as I dubbed them. We’d discuss everything, from what happened at school with his friends and teachers, to why something bad had happened in the world, to why we were created. He often asked questions beyond his years, and I tried to answer as best I could, while asking for his thoughts as well. Lessons in honesty, kindness, and thinking of others first were just a few of the themes woven throughout our talks, and he seemed to readily grasp them.

I decided to use some of this precious time to discuss an important life lesson, especially given the change I began to notice—the subject of doing the right thing, even if no one is watching.

We had touched upon this topic before, but I wanted my son to understand that just because no one else knew that he’d done something wrong, that didn’t make it OK. We are all ultimately responsible for our decisions, and those decisions have consequences. It was important for him to understand this.

As we were talking about doing the right thing, it dawned on me that, at first glance anyway, there can sometimes be some tough choices to make. I have certainly made my share of mistakes.

Susan Alexander Yates, in the online parenting site Focus on the Family, makes some very valid observations regarding the importance of integrity above all else.

We must be careful not to bend our principles, no matter how small the issue, how wronged we may feel, how justified we feel in our actions, or how advantageous it may be for us.

She notes: “As parents, do we value integrity more than success? If I value integrity, I will insist that my son make honest line calls in his tennis match, even if it causes him to lose. I will not write my daughter’s college essay for her, even if I think it might increase her chance of acceptance. Because of our culture’s warped values, we have to be vigilant: The desire for success can subtly influence our decisions and ultimately erode our character.”

Pointing out to our children the times we choose to do the right thing, rather than doing what is most beneficial to us, can teach our children how to start thinking along these lines. And the more we practice this way of thinking and behaving, the more proficient we become at doing the right thing.

Making Good Choices

We have daily opportunities that test us on whether we will choose to do the right thing, or the easy, convenient, and ultimately self-serving thing.

Sometimes these choices aren’t easy, and we can find ourselves in the midst of a real internal conflict. But which voice will we ultimately choose to listen to?

As children, we are more pure, but as we get older, we are exposed to examples of others not doing the right thing. These examples come from our parents, other children at school, television, social media, and so on. With all these messages, we might start to believe that doing the right thing isn’t really all that important after all.

But doing the right thing, also known as integrity, is important. It is vital to who we are today—and who we will become. Our integrity will shape our children and thus, future generations, and society at large. It impacts the decisions we make day-to-day, our relationships, how we respond to life’s challenges, how we elect our leaders, and nearly every aspect of our life in some fashion.

Susan Alexandra Yates goes on to say this about integrity: “To be a person of integrity means to be someone who is completely honest, trustworthy, reliable and dependable, whether others are watching or not. Unfortunately, today’s culture doesn’t value integrity. This often leads to an attitude that says it’s OK to do whatever we want as long as no one gets hurt and we don’t get caught.”

There’s a lot of talk in society today about doing whatever one wants. There are also plenty of examples of exhibiting bad behavior because one feels wronged, or upset over some issue. In my view, this is incorrect thinking. For the sake of our moral character, as well as the sake of those around us and society at large, we should make good choices and act with kindness and integrity, no matter what the situation. After all, unless we live on a private island, who we are, and how we behave ultimately impacts others. There is no avoiding it. And at the end of the day, bad behavior is still bad behavior, no matter how we try to justify it.

Know Where You Stand

It’s important to give serious thought to what our morals and values are, and then to pass these on to our children. We do this by modeling these principles and having discussions with our children every chance we get, even if it’s while taking a walk or driving to school. It’s a sad fact that discussions around morals and values aren’t taking place often enough with our children today. With the state of the world being what it is, these discussions are needed now more than ever.

Merriam-Webster defines integrity as a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.”

This adherence to a code of moral values stands in contrast to conforming to popular opinion, especially when what is popular strays from what is right.

This is important for us all to remember, but especially so for our children. Peer pressure can lead our kids down a devastating path with just one bad choice.

It was for this reason that the talks with my son always involved role-playing. For example, I would ask him things such as, “What would you do if some kids in your class asked you to steal something from a store? And what if they started calling you names if you didn’t join in?” After he responded with “I would just say no and walk away,” I would up the ante a little. “What if A.S. (his best friend) asked you to steal the new Mario Bros video game that you really wanted, and you knew no one would see you take it?”

I’ve posed different scenarios to him over the years, involving everything from smoking, to cheating, to taking responsibility for his actions, to putting others first. My hope is, if he thinks about some of these things in advance, he’ll know where he stands and it will be easier to do the right thing when the time comes.

Instilling Integrity

Laura Markham provides some insight into how we can help our kids learn to do the right thing in an article in Psychology Today. She lists four things to focus on when teaching our kids about integrity.

First, kids always pay attention to our behavior, meaning we model and they learn. And I think every parent knows that even though they may think their child isn’t always paying attention—they are.

Let’s say, for example, we leave the grocery store and notice the clerk forgot to ring up our water. If we say, “Forget it, I don’t have time to go back in,” or worse yet, “Awesome, free water,” what lesson do we teach our child? Going back and paying for the water is the right thing to do, and our child then learns how to handle similar situations with integrity. As we go about our day, it’s crucial that we do the right thing so our children know how they are expected to behave.

I’d like to point out here out that while it’s important to model good behavior, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t correct or guide our children simply because we may have made the same mistakes we see them making. If we use this incorrect way of thinking, how will we ever teach our children right from wrong? 

It’s our job as parents to lead our children down a good path, to educate them with reason and upright values. If we believe we have to be perfect in order to do this, how can we effectively parent? We are human, after all, and so we will stumble and fall, and we certainly each have our own failings and shortcomings. But we shouldn’t use this as a reason to passively allow our children to exhibit poor judgment or bad behavior. Such thinking will lead to a downward slide in the behavior, morals, and values of our children, and society in general.

Next, pointing out to our child how his actions affect others goes a long way in having him pause to consider whether he’s acting in a kind and considerate manner. It’s the “do unto others as you would have done unto you” principle at work. When your child lets another play with his favorite truck, point out to him how happy it made that child, and how your child would feel if someone shared their favorite toy with him. Then ask your child how he feels after sharing his truck. Doing the right thing feels just as good for the giver as it does for the receiver, so make sure your child recognizes this.

We also have an opportunity to use doing the wrong thing as a teaching moment, and offer alternative choices for our child’s behavior.

For example, say our child chooses to play instead of do his homework, and then gets a poor grade on his assignment. It’s a chance for him to experience repercussions and think about what he could do differently. As an alternative, he could sit down every day after school to do his homework, and then play afterward. Does he think that would feel better than playing while knowing his homework is waiting and then having to rush to get his homework done after he’s tired from playing?

Lastly, Markham recommends asking our children questions that allow them to reflect back on their behavior and actions. Using role play, as I’ve done with Jacob, is very effective here, as in “What would you do if this situation happened.” Asking your child what he learned from a situation, and if some part of him knew that what occurred wasn’t right, also helps him to look inside and see where he can improve. Some of life’s most valuable lessons come in this way.

Mark Merrill, father of five and champion of integrity says: “What if I told you it was not a single action, but a mind-set you needed to develop? Integrity is born in the mind and heart of a person. It comes from who you really are as a man or woman, and what you really believe about right and wrong, good and evil. And integrity is exhibited not in just one act of goodness, but in your whole character.”

Merrill suggests focusing on some basics in developing integrity, such as what we say, how we say it, what we do, and how we do it. Using these as a guide, we can evaluate how we conduct ourselves to ensure we are in alignment with the values and principles we want to live by, and we can then go on to instill these in our children. I would include paying attention to what we think as well, as it’s the foundation for what we say and do.

On the website All Pro Dad, which is focused on guiding men to behave as role models for their children, Merrill has this to say about choosing the wrong thing: “When we benefit from questionable actions and non-ethical practices, we are also leaving behind a trail of pain caused to others. It is the law of nature that something else is going to suffer when another takes what doesn’t belong to them. Someone will [have a] price to pay for these actions. What happens in the dark will eventually be brought to the light. That’s guaranteed.”

Looking Ahead

Several authors have attributed a quote to one of the most successful businessmen of all time, Warren Buffett, speaking to the importance of integrity.

“In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first one, the other two will kill you.”

As parents, we strive to get our children into the best schools in order to ensure they get the best education so they are set for success in life. We value intelligence. But are we missing something here? As Buffett points out, intelligence without integrity will kill you, or at the very least, your business. While education is important, our character is even more important to a successful life, and that’s something that’s not getting the attention it deserves.

Today, my son is 14. And while he no longer cuddles up in my bed, I manage to sneak in some life lessons as he goes about his day. Grounding him in strong morals, values, and principles provides the basis for who he is becoming, and helps determine his path in life. It’s my responsibility, both as a parent and a member of society, to make sure he grows up to be a man of integrity.

Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.