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Honesty and Trustworthiness Discussion

On Friday, we enjoyed an extended discussion on this month’s Great Trait: Honesty. Although intended as an introduction to lying, telling the truth, and building trust, this evolved into a nuanced exploration of honesty, including white lies, forgiveness, intimacy, and telling the whole truth.

At first, the third and fourth graders repeated well-known scripts about honesty: Always tell the truth; Lying makes it worse; Honesty is the best policy. Specific examples from real life, though, soon depended the conversation. What if you want to lie to protect someone’s feelings, like not inviting them to your birthday party? Andrew, our high school T.A. pointed out that most adults commit “white lies” frequently, believing that it makes life easier to spare acquaintances the details of why you were late to their party. Janie expressed little patience for any kind of lie. She said that if she knew someone for a long time, she may decide to forgive them, but if she was still getting to know them, she would never trust them again. The degree to which you are honest can affect your reputation.

Shashvath made the mature observation that honesty is usually not so simple as telling the whole truth. What if there are real consequences to your statements? What if you know that telling the truth will cause your friend to be unjustly suspended? A few students remembered a book they read where a little boy “rescued” a dog from an abusive neighbor. When they neighbor asked the boy, “Did you see the dog in your yard?” he answered, “No,” a technical truth, as he was hiding the dog in basement. Was it worth stealing the dog to prevent it from being harmed or killed? Clearly, making decisions around truth telling is often more complex that aphorisms make it out to be.

Several students shared personal stories of times they have been adversely affected by deception, such as things being stolen from their desks, causing them to distrust an entire classroom of children. Do we let people’s deception make us suspicious of everyone and everything? Or do we try to be hopeful and trusting, even knowing that not everyone is perfect? Rishika said she tries to give chances to people who make mistakes, like breaking promises, rather than cutting off friends. Janie said she expects people to prove their trustworthiness through small, informal “tests,” meaning that she observes the person with their peers to see whether they fulfill their promises.

This discussion lasted an entire hour, full of personal anecdotes, allusions to fictional situations, and many perspectives. In past years, Andrew has talked about how people develop our own morality map. Very young children may lie to see what happens. Older children stop lying only because they want to avoid getting “into trouble.” Developmentally, when we mature, we begin to decide for ourselves what constitutes harmful lying, how we navigate honesty, and who to trust.

Sara pointed out that if we want people to be honest, we have to reward honesty, not punish it. A student forgot their homework? Thank them for their honesty and try to solve the problem together. A child got mad and avenged oneself by taking someone’s snack? Talk about what you could do better next time rather than berate them for making a mistake.

Even the fifth graders informally discussed “telling the whole truth,” since their newspaper class was cancelled. If you don’t like someone, should you walk up to them and tell them, “I don’t like you!” This practice, called Radical Honesty, may be too harsh and insensitive for most people. Similarly, some children who didn’t want to be friends with someone anymore might not want to hear, “I am never going to be friends with you!” Are there more subtle ways to accomplish this? What about, “If you don’t have something nice to say…”

The kindergartners and first graders engaged in our honesty discussion at a nuanced level. Besides telling the truth without tattle-taling, Alex asked, “What if telling the truth made someone die?” Again, we could consider when we would lie to save someone. Then we made an Honesty Poster including motivations for lying, like protecting yourself, not getting into trouble, being polite, or being afraid it makes us a bad person. Reasons to tell the truth are to build a good reputation, learn how to make better decisions, be forgiven, and know that even good people make mistakes.

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