Honesty Pays: Introducing our Children to Ethics


Honesty Pays

Honesty Pays.

A few days ago, I trudged down the stairs at 6 a.m. to find our two little boys playing Xbox. We usually stow away electronics before bed so there’s no chance of this happening, but on this day, we had forgotten. Our youngest immediately tattled that his brother had scratched a library video game on the stone coffee table.

I gingerly flipped the DVD over, hoping the little guy was exaggerating. Then, I saw the long, deep scars.

These things cost a lot of money, I thought. That’s why we borrow them from the library, I thought.

(Insert expletive.)

Our eldest immediately acknowledged scratching the disk. I explained that it belonged to the library and that he would need to pay to replace it.


On the way to the library, he asked whether the librarian would be mad at him for ruining the disk. I said the librarian might be upset, but probably would appreciate his honesty and a sincere apology.

He asked whether I could explain what had happened and apologize. “Sorry, buddy,” I said. “You scratched it. It’s your responsibility.”

So, he walked in. He plopped his yellow lion bank onto the counter and waited for a librarian. When she approached, he told her quietly what had transpired, said he was sorry, and he promised that it never would happen again.

The librarian was kind. She said that things sometimes happen. Then, she looked right into his sweet blue eyes and uttered the money phrase: “Honesty pays.”

The game retails for $59. She reduced the fine by half because he told the truth. That’s still an awful lot of money for an 8-year-old, but our son dug into his bank and pulled out a twenty and two fives – his birthday money. No tears. No fussing. He knew he was at fault and he knew that he needed to make it right.

The librarian thanked him. She said it was “very rare” that a patron acknowledged damaging library materials.


Look… My spouse and I are far from perfect, but we do try to end each day with a clear conscience.

A couple of years ago, I was at Target, transferring our grocery cart’s contents into the trunk of my minivan. Once I had unloaded the bags, I realized there was a $1 item wedged in the bottom that I might not have paid for. I unbuckled both of our boys from their car seats and schlepped them back inside to pay.

A couple of years before that, I lost my wedding ring. After searching for a couple of months and filing reports with all the local law enforcement agencies, we finally filed an insurance claim and received the money promptly. A few weeks later, I found the ring.

I called our insurance company to give them the great news and request that they take the money back out of our bank account. The insurance agent acted as if I were insane – as if I were the first person ever to do the right thing.

There was no established mechanism for easily returning money. I had to write a personal check and mail it to our insurance company, which seems absurd, given that we do our insurance and banking through the same company.


More recently, we took our little travel trailer in for de-winterization. The serviceman told us that we had hail damage and suggested that we file a claim with insurance.

My husband told him we knew there was minor damage, but that it didn’t affect the function and that it would continue to hail in Colorado. The serviceman called us back several times, giving us the hard sell and saying that insurance would likely total the trailer- writing us a big, fat check.

We declined to file a claim. He didn’t understand.

Maybe I don’t understand. What he was proposing was technically legal and certainly would have been financially advantageous to us. But it just seemed… wrong.

I sometimes wonder whether we’re simply old fashioned — whether our idea of ethics is outdated. Maybe it’s just how the world is evolving as we do business with strangers or over the Internet instead of with neighbors. Maybe these are victimless crimes and built into a company’s bottom line.

But my husband and I both grew up in honest families. We surround ourselves with ethical friends. And even if we are old fashioned, we strive to help instill that same sense of integrity in our kids – that secure feeling that even if it means occasionally emptying their piggy banks, honesty pays.