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How To Help Your Teenager Develop Integrity

  • Dr. Greg Smalley & Michael Smalley, M.A.
  • 2003 31 Mar
How To Help Your Teenager Develop Integrity
One time I fell asleep during a U.S. History course that had a unique class tradition. At the end of each class, the professor chose a student to pray. Realizing the perfect opportunity to play a joke, one of my buddies violently grabbed my shoulder and whispered, “Dr. Jones just asked you to pray.”

Feeling disoriented, I looked up at my professor who was silent. Therefore, I naturally assumed that he was waiting on me. “Dear Jesus,” I bellowed out, “thank you for today’s class…”

I quickly realized that I was a complete “moron” when the class broke out in laughter. Needless to say, I was extremely attentive for the remainder of the class.

The thing, however, that I've never forgotten was something Dr. Jones said about George Washington. Apparently President Washington described one of his true desires as being this: I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.

Over the years, I have remembered this statement because it describes something that I value—-true integrity.

How Integrity Develops

Integrity is not a value that is simply passed on. It's something that must grow inside us. As a teenager, I just assumed that I would wake up one day and I would be a man of integrity. That would be like deciding to run a marathon on the day of the race. Even with the right desire and mental attitude, without the daily training, I'd collapse after a few miles. Likewise, integrity does not develop exclusively from desire. It stems from the daily practice of doing the right things. As parents of teenagers, we must help them understand that integrity is a process and not a quick fix. The process of developing integrity begins by helping teenagers understand three important steps.

1. Drawing a new line. During a football game, have you ever noticed which part of the field is most damaged? It's usually the middle because the closer a player gets to the sideline, the more likely he is to run out of bounds. Like the opposing football team, Satan is trying to get us to step out of bounds. As we near the sideline, the closer he is to influencing our lives. As parents, we need to teach teenagers how to keep from stepping out of play. The key is encouraging them to create a new sideline, ten yards away from the original line. In other words, a teen must leave room for error. Since everyone makes mistakes, having room before you step out can be the difference between losing a few yards and losing the game.

2. Becoming aware of our choices. As parents, we need to teach our teenagers to stop asking what's “wrong” with a certain choice. Instead, they need to ask what's “right” with it. If a teen is able to consider whether his actions are moving him closer to or further away from integrity, then a major battle has been won.

I keep a small poem above my computer. This poem has become the key for developing integrity in my own life.

The choices we make every day,

Dictate the life we lead.

To thine own self be true!

This is same message that Luke 16:10 talks about: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” As a teenager, I did not understand the importance of this verse. Since then, it has taken much pain and humiliation to realize how I handle the small things dictates how I react to the bigger ones. I now understand that all the small, seemingly insignificant sins I committed, set the tone for my life. Therefore, since I did not guard the “little things,” I hindered the development of integrity.

I try start each day by thinking about the choices I'll make and how they can dictate my life. For me, “to thine own self be true,” simply means understanding God’s will for my life and being true to His wishes.

3. Accountability. The key to maintaining integrity is through accountability. Accountability is simply being responsible to another person for the commitments we’ve made. If your teenager desires integrity, encourage him to ask an older friend, youth minister, teacher, or coach for accountability. The important ingredient is having someone to ask the difficult questions. For example, “Did you compromise your standards on your date last night?” Ideally, this type of question forces us to carefully and prayerfully consider our choices because we know that someone will be checking.

Integrity can develop in the hearts of those who understand the importance of drawing a new line, guarding the little things, and being accountable. These three things can lead us toward what George Washington most wanted—-the character of an honest man.