Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not. ~Oprah Winfrey
I’m proud of our twelve year-old. He has job. He has responsibility. He has someone else counting on him. He finished mowing the in-laws property earlier today. It has become his weekly job. For which, I believe he is handsomely compensated (he negotiated the fee with his grandfather on his own). As I went to put away some of the materials I was using to clean the canoe, I noticed a small patch of lawn that was neglected during this latest round of backyard travails. He must just simply missed the small (but obvious) patch of turf, I reasoned. But, I also needed to know.
And I couldn’t let it go.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I am often reminded by those close to me in both my professional and personal lives that I am a hard worker, take a great deal of pride in my efforts, and always (always) fully commit to something with full follow-through. In a past life, I would have admitted to a regular ritual of over-commitment; and a need to reckon with the fallout. Often. But now? I’m a little wiser and more realistic, too.
Back to that missed patch of Kentucky bluegrass…
I found my son in the kitchen sipping an iced tea, and in the process of looking for a snack.
I think that you missed a small patch by the shop…
I know, I saw it. I didn’t think that it mattered. I’ll get it next time.
Oh. I think that you should get it now. Aren’t you being paid to do all of the lawn [at a medium pace, it’s easily a one-hour job]?
Well…shouldn’t you do all of the lawn?
I did like 99% of it, dad.
Uh-huh. But what about the other 1%. That’s part of the whole thing. [NOTE: I regret saying this next part.] Didn’t you forget to do the bottom part by the beach last week, too?
Dad! It doesn’t really matter. I did most of the job. Papa [his grandfather] won’t even notice or care! Why are you bothering me with this?
Yes, he won’t notice. But, I will. Won’t you?
Not really. It’s just grass, dad. I’ll get it next time.
I think you should do it now. It’ll take a minute. And it will be a complete job. ‘Cause that’s what you’re getting paid for, right?
Seriously?!? It’s about to rain. And my friends are on their way over now. Can’t I just do it next time?
I’ll just tell him that I didn’t finish it.
[Cue me shaking my head in frustration as I leave the room.]
I know what some of the more experienced parents might be thinking: Let it go. It’s not worth the fight. He only has to answer to his grandfather. Why get into the middle of it? What’s the big deal anyway?
It’s a question of integrity.
After participating in an amazingly enlightening workshop on the work of Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead with colleagues last winter, I have pinpointed that one of my two main core values is integrity (the other is gratitude, if you’re curious). Oprah’s definition of integrity is direct and inclusive. Author C.S. Lewis nailed it when he opined that the value of “[i]ntegrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” Naturally, I consider integrity one of the major values within our society. One that is sorely modeled, rarely expected, and sadly misunderstood. Living without integrity is, for me, never an option. There is no Plan B. Decidedly, I am black and white about this one. Either a person lives with/in integrity or doesn’t. It is not a situational or contextual feature of human existence.
The root word of integrity is integer which means whole or pure. What my son confuses integrity with is, I think, the essential value of honesty. He believes that if he tells his grandfather that he missed a part of the grass and that he will cut it next week all is good. Honest is the best policy, blah, blah, blah. It has been my short-lived experience that an individual can have honesty without integrity, but one cannot have integrity without honesty. Integrity demands reflection. Regular reflection that supports our conscious and unconscious efforts to align our moral and ethical values with our actions. Our integrity represents our whole being; our true self.
I am definitely not saying that my son lacks integrity or that he’s without a moral value system or code of personal ethics. I am arguing evidence that he still needs to determine what a value system might look like for him. And to truly exercise and walk in the value of integrity one must be able to reflect. To be introspective. And that takes time. Lots and lots of it. And lived experience, too. And courage. And vulnerability. Several positive role models would also be valued necessities. Yep. High expectations to ask of a young boy. Heck, many adults struggle walking the walk of integrity each and every day. Yours truly included.
Our children are our greatest teachers. Full stop. Who can argue with that? One of the most influential learning reflections I have gained from my children has been the question of integrity. Of doing ‘the right thing’ when no else is looking. It would not be a stretch to recognize that when we’re often asked do something (by someone else) we are less like to do the best possible job. The motivation is external. It lacks from within. Even in arrangements made through a mutual agreement (i.e. cutting lawn for financial compensation), we still feel a lack of personal choice, and perhaps not complete ownership of our actions. We don’t usually say no all the time. We often judge. We might not like it or downright hate it. But, nonetheless, we do it.
The lawn is cut for another week. I didn’t harangue my son about the 1%. And I didn’t cut it myself either (I was victorious over that urge). Sure, it’s done, and now he can move on. But I wonder through reflection if his integrity might ask him: Am I really done? Is the lawn truly finished? Have I actually done the best possible job I could have done? Did I really earn the remuneration that I negotiated with my grandfather to cut all of the lawn?
Now I hear some fine readers perhaps protesting. Jeff, Jeff, Jeff that’s you. That’s your issue. You are taking this integrity thing way too seriously. It was job. He did it. He got paid. Enough said. Let’s move on already. Your son certainly has. Sure. Maybe I am over-analyzing this far too intensely. Yeah, it’s just mowing the lawn. But this is important to me and my valued principles. Having my son develop his own integrity is important. And what kind of a parent would I be if I didn’t walk the talk?