for release April 12, 2002
by Melodie Davis
How Do We Teach Values, Decency, Honesty?
Can you imagine a lawyer today doing the following?
* There was a lawyer didn't like to charge people much who were poor. Once a man sent him $25, but the lawyer sent the man back $10 dollars, saying he was being too generous.
* An old woman in extreme poverty was charged $200 for getting her $400 pension. The lawyer sued the pension agent and won the case for the old woman. He didn't charge her for his services and, in fact, paid her hotel bill and gave her fare for a ticket home.
* A lawyer and his associate once prevented a con man from gaining possession of a tract of land owned by a mentally ill girl. The case took 15 minutes. The lawyer's associate came to divide up their fee, but the lawyer reprimanded him. His associate argued that the girl's brother had agreed on the fee ahead of time, and he was completely satisfied. "That may be," the lawyer said, "but I am not satisfied. That money comes out of the pocket of a poor, demented girl; and I would rather starve than swindle her in this manner. You return half the money at least, or I'll not take a cent of it as my share." (from www.inspirationalstories.com <http://www.inspirationalstories.com>)
This column is not about lawyer bashing, nor a belated tribute to Abraham Lincoln. But I was intrigued to find these documented stories of why we came to refer to the 16th U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, as "Honest Abe." It's hard to imagine a lawyer, or a president today, with such scruples.
However, the legendary story about Lincoln's character stems from the time he managed a country store. He discovered he had overcharged a customer a few cents, and then walked a long distance to pay the customer back.
Where do honesty and decency come from? How do you teach your child not to lie today when everyone from the president or prime minister to the defense department (misinformation campaigns are a common part of war) to large, respected corporations misrepresent the truth? Where do you draw the line and say, for this you have to pay, make some restitution?
* Sandra forgot to have her mother sign her reading report one day. So she faked the signature. It didn't look right, and the teacher questioned her about it. She lied, but later, when the teacher said she was going to ask the parents about it, Sandra came clean about the situation to her parents. In this case the parents and the teacher involved decided that since Sandra had lied about the signature and not just faked it, some additional homework in the subject area would be appropriate punishment.
* Brad and his friends flashed vulgar signs from the bus window on a school trip. School authorities happened to pass the bus on the highway at the wrong time. They did some digging and talked to the teacher who was on the bus. The students were identified. In this case the parents felt that the punishment should do someone else some good, and asked Brad to do community service hours.
These are little things, perhaps. Hundreds of students fake their parents' signature every day, I'm sure, or print vulgar signs. Will her punishment stop Sandra from lying in the future? Will it stop Brad from flaunting suggestive signs? Who knows, but their parents and teachers certainly hope so.
It is always a temptation to rationalize one's actions. In the case of the lying student, Sandra said she knew many students who signed their parent's names. Why do teachers request so many signatures, anyway?
We're all great at rationalizing: we have reasons for speeding, shaving numbers on tax forms, padding resumes, fluffing reports to stockholders.
When students come to do community service hours at our church's clothes closet, I'm encouraged: not because they have messed up somewhere along the way (don't we all do that?), but because I recognize that here are other parents or authorities who are drawing a line. They care enough about the kid to try and teach a lesson.
Perhaps they are raising the next Abraham Lincoln. Or Mother Teresa.
For a free booklet, "Teaching your Kids Right from Wrong," write to: to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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