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?