Integrity: How can we teach kids to be their best selves?
At the end of every English lesson, I used to send my classes off with an emphatic, “Be your best selves”. It was a lovely sentiment, but in my heart of hearts I knew it was water off a duck’s back. Our kids need much more than throw away reminders in developing their integrity, especially in their tween and teen years.
This need for development is particularly obvious when it comes to social politics at school; it can be brutal. There is a constant battle for social approval, and the need to fit in seems to trump empathy and kindness. Sometimes we have to wonder, are some kids just plain cruel at this age? Where does the integrity they show at home go when they are at school?
In most cases our kids are not cruel. They are just lacking in skills and they are at a stage in their development where the biological and social need to belong is profoundly powerful. However, that doesn’t get them off the hook… or us! It is our job to coach our kids to be their best selves and to act with integrity.
What is integrity?
I teach younger students that integrity is when your actions line up with your words. If we say we are a friend, we have to act like one. If we say we are going to complete a task for our parents, we need to follow through.
With older students I teach that integrity is aligning all of your conduct with your values and beliefs. What we do, say and even condone with our silence, must match what we know in our hearts to be right.
Some students will struggle with these definitions. That’s fine, because they all understand what it means to be out of your integrity. They understand the uncomfortable, slightly sick and anxious feelings that come when we speak or act in a manner we know to be wrong.
Integrity in social situations
So often parents say to me, “I don’t understand why kids are so horrible to each other?” It is a justifiable question and almost all of us have thought the same at some point. However, we need to take into account the biology and social dynamics of children and adolescents.
For a start, they are venturing into social networking and finding where they belong. Success in this arena is more important to our children than almost anything else that happens at school. Different kids use different behaviours to achieve success; they use what works. For some that is humour, for some it is athletic or intellectual ability, for others, it is caring and kindness. All of these strengths provide some social capital.
Unfortunately, gossip, manipulation, belittling and exclusivity also provide social capital. Adolescents, in particular, want desperately to be accepted so they will yield to these behaviours. They intuitively know that if they can knock someone else off balance, they will feel more balanced, and they know exclusion creates inclusion.
Sometimes even the loveliest kids will use poor behaviours because they are a shortcut to achieve belonging and because, let’s face it, they work! Nobody knows that better than a child who has been on the receiving end of bullying, which is why kids who have been bullied often go on to bully others.
“Why can’t they just control themselves?” I hear you scream. Well, they don’t have the neurological development you do. An adolescent’s prefrontal cortex is partially developed and intermittently engaged. That is the part of the brain responsible for good judgement and self-control. You see the problem? Our kids have a high biological need to belong and a low ability to control their impulses. If we are honest, some adults have the same problem.
Lourdes Hill College clinical psychologist, Kristina Morgan says, “After the heady rush of the gossip, exclusion or belittling dies down, kids know the cheapness of selling themselves out. They know they have not been their best or truest self. That is where we can make a difference and help them grow.”
How do we develop integrity in our kids?
1. We need to challenge behaviour. Kristina says, “If your children are spreading gossip to you, or to peers in front of you, name what they are doing. Ask, is that really who they are? Who they want to be? If the person they are talking about was in the room, would this conversation be the same?”
2. Reframe to promote empathy. Ask how the person on the receiving end of bad behaviour might feel. Ask for better words than bad or sad. Encourage them to use a wider emotional vocabulary.
3. Introduce the pause. Whenever we have the opportunity, we need to help our kids pause. The instinct part of the brain takes over when humans feel under siege and panicked. If we want our kids to show good judgement and integrity, they need to slow down. Ask them to stop and count to 5 when you see them working themselves up. Ask them to breathe.
4. Introduce choices. Kristina says, “Let your children know that they can choose what they engage with online and in person. They can do this with respect for themselves and the other person/people they are with. If they don’t like a conversation, they can stop engaging in it. If they feel uncomfortable in an interaction, they can move away from it. If they follow sites or influencers that make them feel bad about themselves, they can unfollow them.”
5. Role model integrity. We need to demonstrate integrity and talk about it. We have to do this every day. It is hard, but if you can’t, won't or don’t – how can they? If we want our kids to show integrity, we need to show integrity ourselves. Full stop.
At the very essence of integrity is choice. We can’t always be with our kids to help them make good choices, but we can continually coach them. Then we need them to trust their gut. That ‘gut voice’ evolves when kids are constantly surrounded by conversations and role models promoting integrity.
That voice in their gut is the product of all those meaningful conversations that we simply can’t allow to get forgotten in the busyness of life. Because… saying, “Be your best self” is lovely, but ongoing modelling, and parental education about integrity are truly powerful.