A stolen crayon, a copied paper: reminders of honesty

My daughter cheated on a test the other day, a 7-year-old's mistake that was born not out of maliciousness, but out of her efforts to please.

At her age, she doesn't see the world entirely in terms of right and wrong. Her reasons for copying another child's paper were simple: she didn't know the answer and saw someone who did. It wasn't wrong - it was simply convenient.

From her misstep, I learned a very important lesson: It's easier to say you're going to be a strong mother than to actually be one.

When I was 7, I stole a crayon from the church nursery. Hardly a criminal act. I'd thought it was OK to replace my own missing black one with the one I'd "found."

When I proudly showed the treasure to my Aunt Dawn, who was babysitting, she marched me back to the church and made me confess my misdemeanor to the nursery director, an unsympathetic woman who gave me a talking-to about honesty. It was a lesson I never forgot and one I intended to teach my own children, should the time come.

But 25 years later and faced with my daughter's confession about how she'd managed to ace a test she hadn't studied for, it wasn't easy. I started out stern enough, dispensing a lecture that I thought was laced with just enough disapproval and reproach to make my daughter see the error of her ways.

Then my entire argument was undone by a single tear, slipping down her cheek in a graceful swoop of regret.

I faltered, hesitating in my efforts to teach a moral lesson. I'd made her cry.

As a mother, there is nothing more gut-wrenching than to see my child hurt, and even worse, to know I am the cause of that hurt. It goes against every maternal instinct I have.

Immediately, I wanted to stop the lecture, pull her into my arms, and make the tears go away.

By doing so, the temporary problem - my daughter's tears - would be solved. Long term, however, I worried that by accepting this infraction, I'd be laying the groundwork for a series of escalating wrongdoings that would eventually lead to her robbing a convenience store because we were out of milk.

Still, those tears, pooling in her aqua eyes, twisted my heart into knots. Unable to trust my judgment, I took the coward's way out - I sent her to her room and told her we'd deal with this later.

My husband and I discussed the matter for an hour, debating whether we should punish her because she was already contrite, and what punishment, if any, she should have.

The pros of making her confess outweighed the cons, at least then. We finally settled on having her write a letter to her teacher, confessing her error and apologizing for it.

The letter, which we'd have the teacher sign, would be proof that she'd told her teacher about what she'd done. We warned her there might be serious consequences, even a visit to the principal's office.

The letter went through two drafts. She started out writing "I accidentally" but I stopped her, telling her she had to tell the truth. Tears streaming and puddling on the yellow legal pad, she scratched those words out and began again. In the loopy, jerky writing of a child, she wrote:

"Dear Ms. Hart,

I forgot to study my memory work and copied Chad's paper.

I'm sorry.

Mandy"

She left the kitchen, dejected and, I'm sure, secretly hoping we'd renege on our vow to make her give the letter to her teacher. I read the letter over several times, crying a bit myself. It seemed she'd suddenly become so old, a child turning into a young lady, no longer my baby.

The next day, she neglected to turn the letter in and during that window of retrospection, my husband and I faltered in our resolve. Throughout dinner, worry tugged lines through her face, and shadows hovered under her eyes. We almost took the letter out of her Tweety Bird backpack, almost stepped back and let those tears stop us from doing what we felt was right.

When she came home from school the next day, she bounded in, handing the letter to me, complete with her teacher's signature.

"How do you feel now?" I asked her.

She thought a minute.

"Happy. I told the truth and I don't have to worry anymore." Now that the drama was over, all she wanted was a glass of chocolate milk and a handful of Oreos.

For me, though, the worry is just beginning. Temptation is curling around my daughter every day, a steady stream of choices and moral dilemmas, teasing her one way, then another.

Peer pressure will duke it out with moral judgment, parochial-school teachings with seductive media messages.

Soon, my husband and I will have more far-reaching problems to deal with than the copying of a memory passage in second grade.

For today, we did what we felt was the right thing. The temptation to give in and stop the tears didn't dissuade us, at least not this time.

As the years pass and the pressures become greater, I can only hope this moment will stick in my daughter's memory as strongly as one black crayon does in mine.

Shirley Kawa-Jump is a work-at-home mother of two children, living in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to: home@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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