We are not born ethical … or generous … or polite. In fact, we are pretty selfish when we first arrive. As babies, we want what we want when we want it, which is usually immediately. As toddlers, we have no intentions of sharing our toys, but eventually, we learn to do it. In fact, much of our behavior is learned, rather than instinctive. We learn to say please and thank you. We learn not to take things that don’t belong to us … not to hit the baby or pull the dog’s tail … not to throw a tantrum when we don’t get our way, and many more subtle lessons about getting along in our families and in our cultures.
Since every family and every culture and, in fact, every generation is unique, we don’t all learn the same lessons in the same way. Sometimes, we are explicitly taught what to do and what not to do … what to believe … how to behave … and even who to hate. It is confusing when what we hear and what we see don’t agree. Our parents may say “Lying is a sin! Don’t you ever lie to me,” when, clearly, they don’t always tell the truth. Or they may preach tolerance and respect for everyone, yet insist that all Muslims are terrorists and police are justified when they shoot unarmed black men for minor traffic violations.
If parents say one thing and do another, children very quickly learn to tune out the words but pay close attention to the behavior.
When I was a child, my mother made a big deal out of keeping promises. She reminded me often of something I had promised to do and made it clear she expected me to keep my word. What brought that message to life for me and has kept it alive all these years is that my mother never broke a promise. If she said she would do something, come hell or high water or 103º fever, she did it.
There are countless examples of other lessons I learned as I was growing up. Some were verbalized and repeated many times; others were simply the way my parents conducted their lives, and my sister and I learned by example.
In the 50s, in TV shows like Father Knows Best, the family often sat around the dinner table and discussed what the children were supposed to have learned from this particular episode. Father Knows Best was about as far from a real-life family as one could imagine.
Back then, people didn’t talk about integrity … or values … or ethics at the dinner table or anywhere else I can think of. But lack of discussion didn’t mean those abstract concepts weren’t playing out beneath the surface of our everyday lives. They were, and they were molding the people my sister and I would become.
I didn’t know what such words as ethics meant. But what I did know was that every Christmas I would get the most amazing presents from strangers. One year, I received two crocheted elephants inside a handmade wooden cage like the ones in the Bronx zoo. “Daddy’s friend made them,” my mother told me.
My father worked on the railroad and, in those days, there was no such thing as a widow-and-orphan’s fund to help families who had lost their breadwinner in an accident. It seems that my father figured out how to start one by collecting a small amount of money from each man, every week. He did a lot of favors like that for people but refused to take any money from anyone. Since they couldn’t pay him, they did the next best thing: they made presents for me.
It was only later that I learned the reason behind all those gifts. It didn’t surprise me at all. My father was a quiet, generous person who never took credit for anything he did for others.
Author and humorist Sam Levenson observed that intolerance and prejudice are transmitted not in the bloodstream, but in the stream of conversation in the home. That is equally true of their opposites—ethics and integrity.
Words are powerful, seductive, beguiling. They can change our beliefs and our behavior. But children know something many adults seem to have forgotten: ACTIONS speak louder than words. Children only believe the words when the actions match. That is a lesson many adults need to relearn.