By Brenda Owen
As Americans honor their two most famous presidents this month, many also will be reminded of the virtues which made those men what they were truth and honesty.
Cherry-tree chopping George Washington and "Honest Abe" Lincoln are synonymous with these old-fashioned values.
As a young boy, Washington is said to have taken a hatchet and chopped down one of his father's beautiful cherry trees.
When confronted by his irate parent, the future father of our country owned up to his misdeed even though he believed punishment to be imminent.
"Father, I cannot tell a lie," he supposedly replied. "I chopped down the tree."
The legend of George Washington and the cherry tree has never been proven, but Washington's staunch, honest character has long been admired by Americans.
The incident which led to Lincoln's reputation as an honest man is a matter of public record, according to World Book Encyclopedia.
In 1832, Lincoln bought a business on credit with a partner, William Berry. Lincoln was then appointed postmaster and deputy surveyor of New Salem, Ill., so his partner continued to run the business. When Berry died in 1835, he left Lincoln liable for the debts of the partnership, about $1,100. It took Lincoln several years to pay these debts, but he finally did it. His integrity helped him earn the nickname, "Honest Abe."
In a day when political leaders top the list as some of the most distrusted people in the country, many citizens wonder where our sense of truth and honesty have gone. Others worry that the younger generation is growing up without a moral conscience.
Vicky Farrar, a veteran second grade teacher at Thomas Street Elementary School in Tupelo, said she has observed children's changing values for two decades.
"I think there is a trend toward more dishonesty," she said. "I do a lot of community building in my classroom and encourage children to be honest and truthful without fear of what is going to happen. I tell them, "You are better off to always tell the truth.'"
Watching adult role models use "the devil made me do it" excuses for their dishonest deeds affects children's perception of honesty, she said.
"Kids have always wanted to blame someone else for something. We do our very best to teach them to take responsibility for the things they do," she said.
So, just how honest are most people?
In its December issue Reader's Digest reported on an experiment to test the honesty of Americans. A team of Reader's Digest editors "lost" 120 wallets all over the country. The wallets contained a name, local address, family pictures and papers, and $50 in cash. Out of the 120 wallets, 80 were returned. the Reader's Digest article stated, "Women outperformed men in our exercise. Of the 60 women who picked up the wallets, 43 returned then with the money still inside 72 percent. Of the 60 men who picked up the wallets, 37 returned them intact 62 percent."
Although the percentage of youngsters in the experiment who returned wallets was equal to that of adults, the article pointed out that many adults who returned the wallets and were interviewed about honesty themselves, doubted the honesty of young people. "This concern about the morals of youth is long-standing, and it is increasing," the article stated. "In 1938 a Roper poll found that 42 percent of Americans thought youthful morality was in decline. By 1987 a Yankelovich poll found that general concern had grown to 60 percent of Americans."
An overwhelming majority of those who returned wallets in the Reader's Digest experiment said their desire to be honest was instilled in them by their parents. Others cited early religious training.
Truth or consequences
Rusty Benson, associate editor of the American Family Association Journal, a publication of the Tupelo-based American Family Association, said attitudes toward truthfulness can impact entire societies.
"Honesty is certainly better than dishonesty, because when God's law is obeyed it has a redeeming effect on all of society," Benson said. "However, teaching honesty as a virtue apart from God misses the critical connection between faith and practice what a person believes and how he lives. As children grow older, they are quick to figure out that values that are not grounded in the absolute truth of scripture are really up for grabs.
Benson said he teaches his own children to be truthful because God himself is the author of truth.
"Then I try to live that in my own life," he said. "When parents, churches or schools teach honesty or any other value apart from acknowledging the objective source of that value, they must know that the meaning of that value will certainly shift over time and circumstance that's our sinful human nature."
Teaching virtues in school is best done through examples in literature and history, he said, because it forces students to examine the link between faith and practice.
"For example, students would come to understand how George Washington's view of reality shaped his life and his contribution to our country," he said. "Likewise, they would learn how the world views of Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx shaped their politics. I believe there would be nothing more profitable that a school system could do for a child than to consistently demonstrate the inseparable connection between belief and practice. Often this approach would simply amount to the accurate teaching of American history and a celebration of the strengths of the values of western civilization."
Teaching the children
It's never too early to begin teaching children about honesty, say Northeast Mississippi professionals who deal with children.
Asked at what age children learn to lie, Daphne Shumpert, co-owner of Li'l Play Station day care center in Verona, quipped, "As soon as they can talk."
Shumpert said children usually start telling fibs at around two-and-a-half or three years old.
"Most of the time, at this age, they like things to go their way and they haven't learned how to share or take turns," she said, "so they will use almost any means to get what they want. And, when they understand that they can get into trouble for something, they learn to deny it."
When a child tells a fib, Shumpert said, it should be dealt with immediately.
"We talk about it and try to make them aware that this is not acceptable behavior," she said, adding "I feel that being truthful should first be taught in the home, then reinforced at school.
In this way, Shumpert said, children begin to understand how they are expected to behave.
Elizabeth Young, second grade teacher at Thomas Street School in Tupelo, agreed that to be effective, teaching truthfulness must be done consistently.
"In my classroom we stress being honest, even with the small things such as tape and pencils," she said. "We stress that all that is the same as stealing. The kids realize when they are being honest, even with things like telling lies or stories or if taking things."