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Teaching Your Kids: Keep Your Promises

In addition to telling the truth and keeping your hands off other people's stuff, another important component of integrity is keeping your word. You may have even told your kid, "Your word is your bond," but what does that really mean? Well, Holly Getter can tell you. Because at the age of ten, she had to stay up half the night doing math just to find out.

So, Holly grew up in Rockford, Illinois, in a time when there was a lot of experimentation going on in education. And one of those experiments in her fourth-grade class taught her how to do long division, but more important, it taught her about honoring her word.

Here's how that worked. When starting a math section on division, the teacher told the students what would be required to earn various grades on that portion of the class. To get a C, they had to turn in so many pages of correct long division problems. A grade of B required more pages, and an A even more. More important, students had to choose upfront what grade they wanted to earn and sign a contract with the teacher committing to complete that many pages.

Holly Getter wanted an A. So that's what she signed up for, literally. At the age of ten, it was the first time she'd ever signed her name on a contract for anything. It was a little scary, but a bit exciting at the same time.

Unfortunately for Holly, not long into the lessons, it was clear she wasn't getting it. But she wasn't just a little unclear. She didn't even have a clue where to start. But she was too embarrassed to admit her lack of understanding and too afraid to ask for help. So as the due date approached, Holly hadn't completed a single page of long division problems.

Well, the night before it was all due, Holly went to her mother in tears. Through sobbing eyes, she admitted her problem and begged her mother for help.

"Well," her mother said, "let me start by telling you what a contract is. When you sign your name on something, you're telling someone you're going to do something. That's your word. Your word needs to be something you stand by."

Well, Holly wasn't sure exactly what that meant. But she didn't have to wait long to find out. Mom continued, "Tonight, we're going to learn two lessons: standing by your word and long division."

And that's exactly what they did. Holly's mom sat her down at the kitchen table and explained to her how to do long division. "Divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down. Then repeat." Over and over again, they worked through that process: "Divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down." One hour, two hours, three hours... Holly and her mom sat working through problem after problem.

Well, some time after midnight, Holly complained, "Mom, I'm sooooo tired!"

"Yes, I know you're tired. I'm tired, too. But you signed a contract. This is your responsibility."

Holly's mom stayed up with her little girl till 3 a.m., until the last problem was done.

Morning obviously came early for both. Holly was hoping for a day home from school, given her late night. But she wouldn't get it. Her mother knew that to learn the lesson properly, Holly needed to feel all the repercussions herself.

Now, today, as an elementary school teacher herself, Holly Getter shares that story with her students to teach them these lessons:

First, math was hard for her too. But she learned it, and so can they.

Second, never be afraid to ask questions. That's the only way you'll learn. If she'd been brave enough to admit she didn't understand long division, she would have learned it much earlier.

Lastly, your word is binding. When you sign a contract, that's a commitment. You have to keep it, even if it means staying up till 3 a.m. doing long division.

In the end, Holly earned her A in long division. But she earned something far more important: the self-respect that comes from knowing what it means to stand by your word.

So, to help your child learn those same lessons, share this story, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Do you think it was fair for Holly's mother to make her stay up till 3 am to finish her math?

  2. Have you ever signed a contract? What was it for? And did you complete your part of the arrangement?

  3. Has someone ever made you a promise they didn't keep? How did that make you feel?

  4. What's a situation that might make it okay to break your word?

  5. And last, for the parents, what did you think about Holly's mom's dedication to staying up with her girl to get that project done. Would you have done the same? Why or why not?

Okay, in the next lesson, we'll talk about standing by your convictions, which is usually harder than it seems.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith