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Student Well-Being Opinion

Has a Student Ever Caught You Being Less Than Honest? What to Do About It

You have to walk the walk
By Uri Gneezy — March 29, 2023 1 min read
How do I teach students to be honest?
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How do I teach students to be honest?

If we want students to be honest, teachers need to be honest. Here’s something I wrote related to the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

When my son Ron was young, I told him not to lie—being honest is what separates the good guys from the bad guys. But this lesson soon got me into trouble.

One day, I took Ron to Disney World, and as we waited in line to purchase tickets, I saw a sign that said, “Under 3 years old: Free. Three and older: $117.

When it was our time to pay, the cashier asked me how old Ron was, and I replied, “Almost 3.” Technically, I wasn’t lying: He was almost 3, but from the wrong side. His third birthday was a few months earlier.

A couple of minutes later, Ron said, “Daddy, I’m confused. You told me only bad guys lie and you just did.”

I was caught. What message did I just send my kid? I told him one thing—don’t lie—but acted differently in the face of a $117 incentive, sending a mixed signal.

You can tell everyone that you care about honesty, but talk is cheap. To avoid sending such mixed signals to your kid, you need to set up strong consequences in advance. For example, if you want to convince your teen that texting while driving is a really bad idea, you would make the categorical decision never to touch your phone in the car. And you’d set a punishment—say, your children can report you to your spouse—if you do.

After 3-year-old Ron saw me sneak him into the park for free, he learned a lesson—just not the one I wanted to teach. When we got to the Dumbo ride, which was restricted to ages 4 and up, he told the operator he was 4 and, therefore, old enough to go on the ride. Not surprisingly, he learned from the wrong signal.

Don’t believe that just telling kids to do the right thing will be effective.

Do use incentives to help yourself model ethical behavior. Put money in a jar to donate to charity if you curse or when you’re late for an appointment. Your actions send a signal about what you really care about, and your kids are observing your signals.

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