I had studied the Great Wall of China in school, but no history lessons or pictures could prepare me for the experience of standing in front of it. The wall rose out of the earth as if it were alive, arching across the countryside in a display of formidable strength.
And then we began to climb. Never before had I lumbered up so many difficult and uneven steps, originally designed that way to slow down enemies. When we reached our lookout point, I stood amazed at the mass of stone and brick stretching out to the horizon.
For hundreds of years, the Great Wall had provided protection against military incursions and intrusions by nomadic neighbors. But the wall was breached in 1644 by a group of invaders known as the Manchus, who had an agreement with an influential general to open the gates and allow them into China. And so a kingdom was conquered by a single, yet significant, lapse of integrity.
Just as integrity is vital to the security of a kingdom, it holds equal importance in our children’s lives. We create clear boundaries and limits to protect our kids, but integrity is what holds those boundaries in place. This essential virtue gives our children the strength to resist Satan when he tries to rob them of living out God’s plan for their lives.
Can we teach our children to have integrity? Certainly we help provide the basic building blocks of character as we raise our kids with knowledge of God’s love and the principles He cares about. But developing integrity in our kids is a deeper matter than simply teaching them biblical values. It requires a broader, more complete understanding of the reasons for living according to these values — and it requires parents to be more in tune with our kids’ motivations and heart. Tall order, for sure. Here are a few truths to keep in mind as you work to instill integrity in your children:
Integrity is internal
First, help your child understand that integrity involves much more than what teachers and friends believe about him. What others think about a person makes up that individual’s reputation, and while that can be affected by one’s integrity, integrity itself consists of that which resides inside—one’s thoughts and personal values. Integrity resides in the heart.
Of course, no parent is privy to the internal workings of their children, to all the thoughts and factors that govern their daily decisions. But through time, love and plenty of conversation, we become more in touch with our kids’ hearts and their motivations. We can determine if they are living with an authentic love and reverence for God’s principles and how consistently they adhere to these values. Do their personal walls of protection — their moral standards — seem to only exist when certain people are watching? Help your kids realize that true integrity means living out convictions consistently, so that what they say and what they do — particularly when no one else is around—is the same.
Integrity can’t be legislated
I often thought it would be so much easier if we could legislate integrity in our children by implementing the right recipe of routines, rules and consequences to determine all their future decisions. But rules are not the essence of integrity, a point that should be made clear when you consider how many rules of our world are ignored when the rule enforcers are not present. In fact, according to the apostle Paul, the law can actually arouse within us a temptation to break it (Romans 7:5). And don’t forget the Pharisees, who were excellent at keeping rules. But our Lord told them that cleaning the inside of the cup was far more important than cleaning the outside (Matthew 23:25-26). Jesus said that maintaining a pure heart was far more important than adhering to rules and traditions.
Raising kids of integrity goes deeper than managing how much time they spend on their gadgets or out with their friends. It’s more than choosing their wardrobe or at what age they wear make-up. Raising kids of integrity means equipping them with wisdom to discern for themselves standards and boundaries — all in alignment with God’s will. So accompany all family rules with the reasoning for those boundaries. In small, appropriate ways, let your kids help define those boundaries once they demonstrate an understanding of the relevant reasons and goals.
Someday your child will grow up and leave the home, and there won’t be anyone to make and enforce all of the rules he needs to live a responsible life. Often, kids who have been sheltered, protected and managed don’t know what to do with a life without external rules. Sometimes that leads to rebellion or mismanagement of time and resources, and the older they get, the more costly these mistakes become.
Integrity is fueled by God
The process of developing integrity in our children is complicated and requires lots of time and endless attention. Busy parents often are tempted to reduce concepts of faith and integrity to a manageable list of do’s and don’ts. Tells truth to parents? Check. Does his homework without constant reminders? Check. Yet in focusing on the tangibles more than on the motivations, the checklists can begin to eclipse God’s proper place in your child’s heart. The rules become the “god” instead, which makes them certainly easier to follow when convenient, yet easier to rationalize away when not.
I often compare integrity to the metal detectors at the airport. When we go through the detector, its job is to sense whether we are carrying potentially dangerous metal objects. Yet these detectors need to be set by someone who decides their sensitivity level. Some of them easily pick up on small amounts of metals. But if the sensitivity is too low, they rarely pick up on anything. Setting a metal detector is akin to setting your child’s conscience.
Help your child develop an awareness of God’s heart, the things He cherishes and the things that grieve Him. This is true integrity, a pure understanding of what is right and wrong according to God’s plan, a commitment to seeking His will for our lives. We live in a world where integrity has gone by the wayside, but when your child has this type of awareness, it will keep temptations — such as irresponsibility, laziness, immorality — in check.
If you provide your child with a heightened sensitivity to the things that make God sad, their conscience will dictate to them how to live lives that are holy.
Dr. Tony Evans is a pastor, author and speaker. He is also the founder and president of The Urban Alternative, a national organization that seeks to bring about spiritual renewal in urban America through the church.