Tag Archives: honesty

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?

Bad. (But Honest.)

Growing up, we had an expression in our family that I think originated with my grandmother: “Bad, but honest.”

This expression was usually deployed when a child either readily admitted to a wrongdoing (“Kristen, did you knock over your brother’s Lego tower?”…”Yup!”) or provided an opinion that lacked social grace (a hopeful, smiling “Kristen, do you like Aunt Linda’s zucchini bread?” met with a defiant “Nope”), causing the adult to say of impish me, “She’s bad, but honest!”

I thought of this expression often last week while reading Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver.  This slim novel, set in the Scandinavian winter, tells the story of village outcast Katri Kling, her brother Mats, and Anna Aemelin, the children’s book illustrator to whom Katri ingratiates herself.  What’s remarkable about the book is the way in which Katri insinuates herself into Anna’s life.  Lacking financial resources, she makes it her mission to be invited to live with Anna.  But, instead of conning the gullible old woman, she overwhelms her with honesty.  She tells her about the shopkeepers who have cheated her and the townspeople who gossip about her.  She persuades her to reevaluate her worshipful attitude toward her deceased parents.

At one point after Katri and Mats have moved in with Anna, the older woman remarks

Now don’t take this the wrong way, Miss Kling, but I find your way of never saying what a person expects you to say, I find it somehow appealing.  In you there’s no, if you’ll pardon my saying so, no trace of what people call politeness…And politeness can sometimes be  almost a kind of deceit, can it not?

Despite her concern that Katri might take her words as an insult, to Katri’s way of looking at things, Anna could not have offered her a greater compliment.  Indeed, Katri is obsessed with truth and objectivity and her honesty gave her an unusual level of power and status in their village.  Katri’s attitude is best summarized by a passage she narrates early in the novel.

But you never know, you can never really be sure, never completely certain that you haven’t tried to ingratiate yourself in some hateful way – flattery, empty adjectives, the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want; maybe an advantage, or not even that, mostly just because it’s the way it’s done, being as agreeable as possible and getting off the hook…No, I don’t think I made myself especially agreeable.  I lost this opportunity.  But at least I played an honourable game.

And reading this book and thinking of my family’s saying made me really consider the “machinery” that many us take part in every day.  The small lies we tell ourselves and others every day to lubricate conversation and maybe, just maybe, get us the things we want.

That skirt looks great on you.

I love your new haircut.

What a cute baby!

I value kindness.  I value politeness.  I judge people on whether they give up their seat on the subway to a pregnant woman or whether they interrupt their cell phone call to hold the door for the person behind them at Starbucks.  I say “please” and “thank you” and want others to do the same.  I go out of my way to give compliments.

But I wonder: is valuing kindness a way of undervaluing honesty?  Is politeness indeed a “kind of deceit”?  Are “empty adjectives” kindness or dishonesty?

Which do you value more: honesty or kindness?  Is there room for “empty adjectives” within an otherwise honest life?

Image: What?!? It Wasn’t Me!!! by stephen031 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.