Let me take you on a mental road trip back to my sixth grade classroom. The first thing that happened in any classroom on any given morning, of course, was attendance: the teacher would call out each name and mark whether the student was present or absent. On this particular day, my teacher called out names until she came to my friend Eric. Their conversation went a bit like this:
“Eric, you weren’t here yesterday. Do you have a note from home?”
“No ma’am, I do not,” Eric answered.
“Why were you not in school yesterday?” she replied.
Eric said, “Well, yesterday morning – early – the water pipe under our sink broke and the house was being flooded with water. So I had to help my dad get the water turned off, move all the furniture out of the rooms, and help him dry, clean up, and repair the pipe.”
My sixth grade teacher looked at him and said, “Well, that’s not an excused absence.” Her implied meaning was that because it was not an “excused” absence (made official by a note from home detailing whatever calamity may have befallen that student that would prevent them from attending), Eric would get zeroes for all of the work he missed by being absent.
A couple of names later, she called my name. Like Eric, I had been absent the day before; however, I was absent because I just didn’t feel like going to school that day. I told my mom, “I just don’t feel like going. Could you write me an excuse tomorrow that says, ‘Brian had a head cold and just did not want to go’?” She agreed- reluctantly. Therefore, when the teacher called my name and asked if I had a note from home, I was able to say, “Yes I do.”
I handed my teacher a note that said, “Please excuse Brian for being out yesterday. He had a head cold, and we thought he might be more sick that he was. Sincerely, Sheila.”
My 6th grade teacher looked at my note and said, “Well, being sick is an excused absence. Get with one of the other students to look at all the work that you missed, and have it made up for me by tomorrow.”
I remember going back to the table and sitting down and thinking about what had just happened with me, and also what had just happened with Eric, and realizing that I was going to make up the work and Eric was not. I would like to tell you that I was mature enough to understand what had just happened there: that if somebody could lie and get rewarded while somebody else could tell the truth and be punished, then the system was really messed up. Sadly, that’s not the case. All I really took away from that situation was that lying pays off.
In his book The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley, Dr. Stanley studies the habits of millionaires (first-generation millionaires, to be precise). These are people who were not born into wealthy families, but who went out and did things that made them a millionaire. “These things” are primarily hard work and starting businesses. As a matter of fact, Dr. Stanley found that an extremely low percentage of first-time millionaires inherited their wealth. Dr. Stanley looked at all the common traits of these first-generation millionaires, and the one common trait that came up over and over and over again was this: integrity.
First-generation millionaires typically have extremely high levels of honesty and integrity.
So if that’s the case, and our goal in life when teaching children is to set them up to be as successful as they can with their talents and their abilities, then why do we drop the ball when it comes to simple honesty?
Think about my story for just a moment. First of all, what would have been the harm in Eric making up the work? I remember Eric. Eric had better attendance than most of the people that I ever went to school with. His parents believed in education, and hard work, and learning, and being honest. They were God-fearing people. While the official reason for his punishment was the lack of an “excused” absence as recognized by an authority figure in the school system, we can see beyond that and realize that Eric was in reality being punished because he was helping his family during a crisis- and that they were honest about it.
I, on the other hand, was rewarded for my dishonesty. Because I managed to convince my mom to lie on my behalf and come up with an excuse that would satisfy school officials, I got away with it. What a message to send to a kid! I learned something important that day that served me well in the coming years. I remember lying a lot from that point on. If I felt that a lie would prove advantageous to me as a kid (and later on as a teenager), I told it.
And I got really good at it.
Over the years, I stopped relying on lies. However, I didn’t give them up cold-turkey. I slowly had to start realizing that, as an adult, telling the truth was not just okay. It was expected. Unfortunately, I had to transition out of an ingrained habit that I should have never been led into, however inadvertently.
We are all familiar with the concept of peer pressure, usually as it relates to kids starting on drugs and alcohol. But the truth of the matter is that I feel like I was pressured more by adults when I was a kid than I was my actual peers.
If we’re going to set kids up for success, we need to re-examine the small things we teach them. For instance, they need to know that lying is not a normal part of the real world. While I appreciated my mom’s interference on my behalf as a kid, it would have done more for my character if she had refused to write that letter and let me accept the consequences of missing school for no good reason. Even small lies, such as this one, reinforce the message that lying gets you what you want without the benefit of hard work.
If you personally believe that lying is, in fact, an okay way to get what you want… well, then you’re part of the problem. We’ve got to slowly untangle the mess that we have created in this world, and I believe that by understanding that honesty and integrity are key parts to it – and making sure that that’s the message we are sending to our kids- we’ll get there.
Remember, being a leader is not always about spotting the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong. Being a good leader is usually spotting the difference between what’s right and what’s almost right.