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How to Help Your Teenager Develop Integrity

By Dr. Gary Smalley
Smalley Relationship Center Over the years, my parents have attempted to teach me how to be a man of integrity. Integrity, however, 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, 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.

Step One: Drawing a 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. [Dr. Gary Oliver taught me this concept and it's mentioned in Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper (1994) Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family Publishing, p. 87] The key is teaching them to create a new sideline, ten yards away from the original line. In other words, they need to 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.

Step Two: Becoming Aware of Our Choices

[This was paraphrased from What Really Matters at Home by John & Susan Yates. (1992) Dallas: Word Publishing.] In addition to the evil one's influence, another damaging force working against integrity is rationalization. Today's test for honesty seems to be, "It's okay as long as you don't get caught," or "It's not that bad, every one's doing it." As parents, we need to teach our children to stop asking what's wrong with certain a choice. Instead, we need to teach them to ask what's right with it. If we can help teenagers to consider whether their actions are moving them closer to or further away from integrity, then a major battle has been won.

For the past six months, every day I read 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!

Basically, this is same message that Luke talks about in the Scriptures. "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much" (Luke 16:10). As a teenager I did not understand the importance of this verse. Since then, it has taken much pain and humiliation in realizing that how I handle the small things dictates how I react to the bigger ones. I now understand that all the little "white" lies I told, set the tone for my life. Therefore, since I did not guard the truth, I kept myself from developing integrity. I now start each day out 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 what God wants for my life and being true to His wishes.

Step Three: Accountability

The key to maintaining integrity is through accountability. Accountability is simply being responsible to another person or persons for the commitments you'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?" or "Have you lied or cheated this week?" Ideally, these questions force us to carefully and prayerfully consider our choices because we know that someone will be checking.

As parents, begin praying for the right person who can provide accountability for your teen. Furthermore, encourage your teenager to draw a line and then to stay ten yards behind it. Help him to see how his choices will dictate the life he wants to lead. Integrity will develop into the hearts of those who understand why guarding the little things can lead towards what George Washington most wanted—the character of an honest man!

© Copyright 2005 Smalley Relationship Center. Used with permission.

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