The Honor System

Image by The D34n

Last week I was talking on the phone with a friend who recently moved away from our small Midwestern town.  We were catching up on the start of the school year and her family’s adjustment to life in a new place, sharing stories about the different customs that seem to be attached to different communities.

Regaling me with details of her kids’ Halloween costumes – a ladybug and a Clone Trooper – she also shared with me an incident from their night that disappointed her and her kids.  Returning from their twenty minutes of trick or treating, they found the giant bowl full of “fun size” Snickers and Milky Ways they had left on their front steps labeled with a “Please take one” sign completely empty.

There weren’t many kids out and about at that early hour, my friend told me, so some of the trick or treaters had clearly seen this unattended candy bowl as a motherlode and filled their plastic pumpkins to the brim with ill-gotten loot.  Like her, her children – seven and four – were dismayed that the other trick or treaters hadn’t followed their request.  Where were these other kids’ parents, we wondered, perhaps a bit quick to judge.  Didn’t they notice when their ghost or butterfly returned to the curb weighed down with chocolate?

Our conversation got me thinking about the idea of an honor system, about what we can expect from our neighbors, and shook loose two memories from my past.

When I was little, an eldery woman in our neighborhood sold tomatoes from her garden on a card table set up in her front yard.  The quarts of tomatoes sat on the table and customers were expected to take their tomatoes and leave their money at her door.  I remember my mom pulling over in front of her modest house; she would take a container and bring the money up to the door of the house, maybe leaving it on the stoop if the gardener wasn’t home.  I remember wondering if anyone ever drove up, took tomatoes, and fled the scene, leaving the woman in the lurch.  It is a sign of the G-rated nature of my childhood that I imagined this as an unfathomable deed.

I then thought back to my years of teaching.  In my last job before my kids were born, I taught at a high school where the students had to sign “I Pledge My Honor” and their names at the bottom of every piece of work they turned in.  I was never convinced that the gesture had much meaning, attached, as it was, so mindlessly to every history term paper, math problem set, and 9th grade homework assignment.  My suspicions were sadly confirmed when a girl in my AP European History class turned in an essay – copied verbatim from the AP website – with the pledge and her name elegantly signed on the bottom.

I have always been a rule follower.  I would have only taken one piece of candy.  I would have always paid for tomatoes.  I would have never plagiarized, let alone signed my name to a pledge promising that I hadn’t.  And examples of people not playing by the rules – especially in a community setting, when your misdeed clearly affects someone else – bother me maybe more than they should.

But I’m left wondering about reasonable expectations.  I’m convinced that the gardener of my childhood could reasonably expect her tomatoes to be safe from produce thieves.  I’m convinced that my AP history student should reasonably be expected not to cheat on her essay.

But is it reasonable to expect sugar-hyped kids not to give in to the urge to horde candy?  It’s certainly fair – certainly reasonable – to ask them not to, but is it really so surprising that my friend and her kids returned home to find an empty bowl?

How do you model honor and honesty for your kids?  What do you think of honor codes in schools?

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46 responses to “The Honor System

  1. This is such an interesting topic and tricky, yes? Because we all engage in little white lies sometimes- at least I do.

    It’s a fine line and they are ALWAYS watching.

    I loved that you brought this one to the table.

    (I’ll stop stealing their Halloween candy now. 🙂 )

  2. I am a rule follower too. I am the one who carefully counts the items in her basket before getting on the express checkout line. Rules have an important role in an orderly society (and household). L is at an age when she questions every rule (at home, never at school, mind you). Every statement of a rule is met with “it’s not faaaaair.” I am trying to talk to her about following even the perceived unfair rules, while calmly questioning their fairness.

  3. That unfortunately happens here as well.

    Farmers here often use cash boxes based on the honor system and I guess they have success with it–since I still seem them.

    I am not sure about honor systems in schools. I think those work if they are bolstered by what is taught in the home–and I don’t see that as happening so much these days.

  4. Such a great topic. The same thing happened to our halloween candy left on our front steps as well:( Mostly, I was sad because I wanted some of the Reese’s peanut butter cups but at the time, I was not surprised, which is more sad. My 6 year old is just learning about honor and it’s something so hard to teach. I try to teach by doing. I know our kids watch every single thing we do. Of course, I often fall short!!

  5. I like to believe that I’m a rule follower, but if I’m honest with myself there are a lot of corners that I cut. With the crush of everyday life and the increased tempo so many of us feel required to keep, it is very hard not to take advantage of the grey areas in hopes of getting just a little further ahead. For instance, my day care closes at 5:15pm everyday. My work would keep me until 6pm if I allow it. In the beginning I left work by 4:15pm each day to make sure I wouldn’t be late. Over time, I’ve learned that my day care provider won’t complain if I am on time MOST of the time. So I delay and delay and blur the pickup time because I can. It’s outside my contract and not really fair to anyone involved. I try to be better, but just knowing it is a grey area seems to give me permission to test it on a regular basis.

    Do I want my children to test the limits of all rules? No. But there are so many rules these days for adults to follow that I can’t even be sure that I know them all, much less that I’m adhering to them. I hope that my children learn to be aware of their decisions and how they effect others around them. Even in all the madness, that is what I attempt to do. I even talk about it with my kids. I am aware of how my chronic tardiness effects my day care provider and I work on it. They see my apologize when I fail and make concessions (early pickups, extra days off) to help even the score. With each decision comes consequences. If they learn and accept that, I will be quite proud of my children.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Margot. You’re absolutely right about all of the gray areas that each of us faces as we navigate life. And, to be fair, there are rules and regulations that I flout all the time without even really thinking about it (e.g. when was the last time I drove 55 MPH on the highway?).

      I like your idea about a giant balance sheet in which we try to do right most of the time and make up for the times when we fall short by going the extra mile. And I suppose that’s a far better approximation of the way the world really works than teaching absolute adherence to every rule.

  6. Inside I have a little girl. She is affectionately named, “greedy girl”. She wants FAR more than is allowed within the rules. For years I played by the rules (mostly my rules) and deprived her of all that she wanted. She wanted MORE paper than the appropriate 6 pieces when we went to the paper store (too many would seem decadent!). She wanted lattes every day (what a hog)! She wanted to watch Dancing with the Stars instead of be enlightened by Public Radio.

    Then I did a radical thing. I started buying her all the paper she wanted. I gave in to her desire for lattes. I surrendered to DWTS. Interestingly, she regularly is happy now leaving the paper store having chosen 2 (!) gorgeous pieces of paper. She often perfers salad to a latte (go figure!) and I’m recently noticing a trend back to more serious information now that I am taking tango lessons.

    I have this hunch that rules themselves implore me to break them. Some place deep inside I want to be kind to others. That’s what feels good. I don’t want to cheat other kids out of the candy bowl. But I don’t want to be cheated either. And I spent a good deal of my life serving myself last, either because I’d served everyone else first or because I was worried what others would think when I hogged the paper.

    For me I notice I can curb these tendencies when I keep breathing. That’s when I can feel my life and taste the day unfolding. I hope your student has learned to breathe and trust that she has a voice inside herself. She doesn’t need anyone else’s words. Or more sweets than her mouth can actually taste.

  7. I am a rule follower as well, and we’ve been big on enforcing the rules. I have to say that our brooding teen– despite his brooding– still tells us most things. Ant just cannot lie. He knows it and we know it, so he doesn’t even try. So, honesty and rule following and doing what is right and taking the high road are all ideals that run pretty deep in our house.
    When it comes to plagiarism, however…well, since I work at a large research university, this is something that we see more often than we would like to. Obviously your student plagiarized with the worst intent possible, but there are lot of gray areas in how one represents themselves (academically, online, etc), and what I have come to realize is that we do not teach students what plagiarism really is (and how one can fall into it unintentionally, etc.). When trying to teach my teen to cite in his high school papers, I realized that none of his teachers have addressed this (or proper citation, for that matter). There’s a really good book I’ve had him read (“They Say, I Say”) that helped immensely. This the rambling way of me saying that I suppose honor codes in school are pointless unless we teach our students what honor is and isn’t, and how one lives by it. In the example of plagiarism, it cannot just be a statement made in class or a line on a syllabus or a form signed; it has to be a series of in-depth discussions that take place over the course of several years– as the student develops.

    • I totally agree with your point about a honor code needing to be part of a years-long system of teaching, learning, and discussion.

      The school where I worked before the one with the honor code actually took these things much more seriously even though it didn’t have an honor code per se. From freshman year on, we spent lots of time talking about the value of your ideas and how to credit others when their ideas have shaped your own. The students took a lot of pride in their writing and incidents of plagiarism were rare and taken very seriously by the community when they did happen.

      The school with the honor code was a higher pressure environment and it seemed as though some administrators thought the code was an adequate substitute for a real discussion of these issues. Not surprisingly I dealt with far more cases of plagiarism in my short time there – likely a result of a combination of academic stress and a genuine lack of understanding. (The girl who copied her essay directly from a website was an extreme example.)

  8. I would never leave a bowl of candy outside on Halloween. Even when I was a kid that never worked. This is the fourth story I’ve heard this year about people being amazed that kids don’t just take one piece. I think that’s a ridiculous expectation.

    In other areas, I think it’s okay to expect honorable behavior. When it comes to test taking or paying for what you take.

    I have noticed that I’m not always honorable, and I’m making an effort to be honest in my actions. For instance, I’ve stopped asking for a $1 tea at McDonalds and then filling my cup with Diet Dr Pepper (that hurt, by the way).

    • I hear you on the candy bowl, Kelly. Although I certainly felt bad that my friend’s kids were so disappointed, I wasn’t all that surprised to hear that their bowl was empty when they returned; nor am I surprised that you’ve heard several such stories. I never remember seeing a bowl like that when I was a kid, but, even though I suspect that I would only have taken one, who knows what I would have done as a high-on-Snickers eight year old?

      • I do remember at least one time when I was Trick or Treating as a child and encountered one of these. I was with my Chinese-American best friend and her parents and we most certainly only took one candy, though probably picked the best candy. We both grew up to be accountants, and now she is teaching English to children in China. I wonder what the children who take more than their share of candy grow up to be.

  9. I remember well those Halloween bowls of candy placed outside, and when I was a kid, I always only took one. The thought of taking more than that was horrifying and shameful to me. Even if there wasn’t an adult present, I could always FEEL Mama, looking over my shoulder.

    Ahem. Guess who is a rule follower to a fault, even still?

  10. I suffer a lot of disappointment in my own life by thinking that things should be fair and just, and being amazed when they are not. I remember once telling a therapist about some injustice, and rather than “taking my side,” she surprised me by saying, “Why do you expect life to be fair?” It’s a painful lesson I’m learning again and again. As for the Halloween candy, we left a bowl out this year, and I was pleasantly surprised at the end of the evening to discover two pieces of candy left. I figured someone would have took them all.

    • You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I am exactly the same way. I spend a lot of time feeling slighted by the fact that life isn’t fair – and I’m slowly learning all of the ways that this limits me, or, at least, wastes a lot of anxiety. Nevertheless, I don’t suspect I’ll ever fully accept that reality.

  11. Kristen, I admit, I am not a rule follower. My scruples are improving with age, but I’ve taken advantage of the fact that my son is small for his age and gotten him in for free places when I should have paid. Oh, I’m cringing just writing that.
    I, as a kid, would have definitely taken more than one piece of candy if I thought I could have gotten away with it.
    My daughter is consumed with the meting out of fairnesses in our house, where my son is pretty happy to make mischief and mix it up.

  12. I’ve been thinking a bit about honor lately–thinking it’s something to cultivate early on by way of security and love. Even if the candy was gone perhaps the bowl itself is the bigger treat.

  13. I think the most important thing is to act in accord with your values. Not the collective’s values, but your values. That’s the only way I know to stay out of trouble.

  14. I was always angry when I came upon an emptied bowl as a trick-or-treater. Though, I understand the urge and I am not a perfect rule follower. There have always been rules I just don’t understand and therefore don’t follow. I think honor is a little different though. It seems to me, that honor is tied to integrity, to keeping promises and treating others correctly. Some rules are stupid. I have a rule follower, to a fault, in my first born. I explicitly remind her that some rules aren’t good for us, and that being respectful matters more. Her school has stupid rules about when to go to the bathroom, and being a careful follower isn’t good when you just gotta go. She, by the way, told kids to take JUST ONE when we came to unattended bowls this halloween.

  15. I’m surprised to hear your Halloween bowl got vandalized. My guess is, it was teenagers with no adult supervision.

    Having been raised in France where “honesty” seems to have stretchy boundaries, I’m always impressed at how honest Americans are. You can leave a $500 stroller unattended at the zoo or SeaWorld and it will still be there, with everything in it. People leave their cars unlocked, windows all the way down and the cars are still there when they come back.

    I’m not saying there are no thiefs here because there are plenty, but still, this society is very trusting, in a nice way.

  16. This is an easy topic for me, because I have always taught my kids to take one piece of candy when a bowl was left out. I have left candy out before and my husband thought that kids would not honor the sign but they did. I believe in the honor system when it comes to everything. Without honor there is not much left.

  17. Not to be down on where I come from but the things you mentioned here – candy bowls and tomatoes – would never fly in Malaysia. We’re not dishonest people but I think it’s because we’re all raised to be afraid of our elders when they’re around that when we’re not under their watchful eye, we tend to rebel. That and we were never treated as equals when growing up so even in adulthood I think we act like children – hoarding, trying to get away with things, etc. Maybe that’s a simplistic explanation. Also, when I say “we” I refer to the people there and not necessarily admitting to any of the above behavior myself.

    In fact, I LOVE the honor system here, despite the cracks you pointed out with this post. Maybe because I came from a society that wouldn’t or couldn’t uphold that system that I am in awe of it and because of that, would not dream of taking more than one candy or not paying for the tomatoes.

    When I first came here, I was amazed at the self-service gas stations because I fully expected people to drive away with a full tank of gas without paying. (Ours is full service back home). Then I couldn’t fathom helping ourselves to buying candy (or anything) in bulk, checking ourselves out at grocery stores or even depending on the post office to send a package because all of those would’ve been taken advantage of in Malaysia. None of my packages ever reached home!

    Anyway, all this to say that your concerns are legitimate but from my perspective, what’s in place here, while flawed, is still better than what I was used to so I’ll take it – cracks and all.

    • Love the perspective you offer here, Justine, as a woman who grew up in another culture. It’s interesting for me to think about the ways in which I sometimes chalk things up to “human nature” when, in fact, so much of what I think to be human nature is actually very culturally dependent. xo

  18. I am sort of happy for the student you had who turned in an obviously plagiarized paper. Not that she thought it was OK to do it or anything like that, but she is still a high school student, and was able to experience the consequences of her misdeed without being out in the “real world.” Hopefully she learned her lesson and will not try something similarly dishonest when she’s at work and the stakes are much higher than a single grade in HS.
    I doubt that teaching honesty at school is really effective. I believe that children learn it from their parents. Not all parents are as honest as we would hope. But then there are good old fashioned consequences, and sometimes they can teach what parents don’t.

    • You make some really interesting points here. With this particular student, I think she was in over her head in this AP class and I looked at her plagiarism as a cry for help. Feeling pressured and over-burdened, she made a mistake, one that had serious consequences in the short-term and hopefully helped her (and maybe her parents, if they were part of the reason she took the class?) in the long run.

  19. I am a rule follower and I would never take more than one piece of candy. My youngest son? He’d totally take 5.

  20. Confession time. When I was a college student my university had a cafeteria that was always understaffed. It used to make me crazy that during the lunch rush they never had more than a couple of cashiers working and that the lines would be ridiculously long.

    One day a friend told me that we didn’t have to pay because if we just walked through no one would say anything. So on a foolish whim I tried it and was shocked to find out that he was right.

    For a little more than a week I ate lunch at this cafeteria and used our “trick” to feed many other students. I was curious to see if they would pay attention to anything I did and began to pile up my tray with ridiculous amounts of food.

    I had dozens of sandwiches, 12 pack of soda, boxes of candy, bags of chips and yet no one said anything to me. I would take that food and give it out to people who were standing in line, in class with me and some friends.

    And then one day I took one sandwich, one drink and a bag of chips and was shocked when the cashier asked me to pay. I did so gratefully and never took a thing from there again.

    For a long time I thought that it was a funny story and then I became a father and realized that I would be heartbroken if my children did this. I wasn’t Robin Hood or funny. It was theft.

    • I wonder, Jack, if you’ve ever told this story to your kids and, if you ever would, how you’d spin it. It seems like one that could pack quite a moral punch.

      • I don’t know how to spin it. It was wrong and it is embarrassing. It is more embarrassing to me that I used to think it was funny.

        I suppose that one day I’ll tell them, but I want to make sure that they understand that I am not proud of it.

  21. I love this topic. Love it. Probably because I’m a fellow rule-follower, too. (I once had a boss tell me I was TOO much of a rule-follower. How is that possible?) I’ve often wondered about this myself. I feel part of the problem is our refusal to police others and call them out on their actions. If people think they can get away with something, they will.

  22. When I walk home from the bus stop after work towards my daughters’ school, I pass a beautiful urban vegetable garden beside a house on a busy corner. I’m always surprised the gorgeous tomatoes, broccoli, peppers and even a pumpkin don’t go missing, but they never seem to.

    In your case, I like to think it was just one bad apple, and that most people are honourable.

  23. We just finished the b00k fair at our school. After a week of watching kids cut in line, have no interest in donating their change to help buy books for their fellow classmates that can’t afford it (after they just spent $30 on crap: pencils, smelly erasers) and inability to stop hoarding crap from said pencil table and stand for the Pledge, I don’t know what to think. Actually, I do. I don’t think a lot of parenting is happening anymore. I think we, as in this particular generation of parents, give it a lot of lip service but that doesn’t mean it’s actually happening.

    • It’s dispiriting, isn’t it, to see kids acting badly en masse? I remember a few incidents from my teaching days that left me similarly heavy-hearted.

      You make a very interesting point here about the gulf between talk and action where parenting is concerned. And I’m reminded that it’s in our own actions – rather than our “lip service” – that we model behavior for our own children.

  24. Hi Kristen, I always try my best to follow the rule, and I encourage my sons to do it, because it will be good for them selves and also others.
    Some people will find me to strict, but I don’t find anything wrong with it, I just do what I have to do and not doing something that we should not do. I don’t do it perfectly but I will always try my best to follow the rule.

    Moreover, being honest is very important for me, and I really teach about honesty to my kids

    Honestly, I have don’t really have any ideas about halloween, and find out that only can take one candy.
    Thank you for sharing this, Kristen

    Yulia
    http://www.mylifeismyrainbow.wordpress.com

  25. I need to walk my talk more often too. Please know I don’t think I’m exempt from this!

  26. dear kris,
    frist of all, what a wonderful blog… I am a mommy-blogger too, and it feels like you speak out of my heart…we met once a few years ago at carols house where we had lunch together… back then I was Stefans (the german jcc volunteer) girlfriend, today his wife… I am a mother of two wonderful girls (emma, 4 years and frieda, 18 month old) and beeing a mother has changed my life more than anything else before… beeing creative and writing and presenting this creativity on my blog has become a wonderful hobby in the last year… Wonderful that you are a “published author” now, congratulations! Keep up!
    Love from Munich,
    Birgit

    • Thank you so much for visiting my blog, Birgit! I completely agree with what you say about motherhood and about writing. It’s wonderful to hear from you and I look forward to connecting with you again.

      Bussi!

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