Life Lessons In Honesty

By Daniel H. King, Sr.

Would you return a wallet filled with money? The folks at Readers Digest wanted to know the answer to this question in 1995, so they set up a test in American cities to see what Americans would do. The results appeared in the December 1995 issue of Readers Digest. They “lost” wallets all over America, each with a name, local address and phone number, family pictures — and $50 in cash. There were 120 of these wallets strewn all over the country, in three major suburban areas, three medium-sized towns, and three small towns. They were left in parking lots, shopping malls, restaurants, gas stations, office buildings, and on sidewalks. Then they stood back to see what would happen. To each person who returned the wallet they offered the $50 as a reward for their honesty.

The numbers which came out of this “test” are interesting, but at times very discouraging. In Seattle, for example, 9 out of 10 people returned the wallet with the money in it; in St. Louis and Boston 7 out of 10 returned it; but in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Dayton, Ohio, and Houston only half gave it back to its owner. In small towns the re- turn rate was consistently 80% (Meadville, PA; Concord, NH; and Cheyenne, WY).

Most of us would have predicted that, by and large, people today are dishonest and that most of the wallets would not have been returned. In reality this was not so. In fact, the bottom line is that of the 120 wallets that were lost, 80 were returned intact, an overall figure of 67 percent. Most people in America are honest! That is the good news.

There are many stories that are associated with this series of tests, but I found this one in particular to be interesting. In Seattle a little girl with a pink floral dress picked up a wallet off a bench at an amusement park. She ran to her father with it in her hand. Yong Cha saw a chance to teach his daughter a valuable lesson. He handed the wallet back to her and said, “You must take this to the police or someone who can help find the owner.” Little Mary, age nine, nodded gravely as she contemplated returning all that money, but dutifully took her dad’s hand as they searched for the park office. “Honesty is the most important thing a child can learn,” Cha later told the Readers Digest interviewer.

What this parent did in this particular case with his child was more important than all the lessons that could ever be taught her in school. These days, when government bureaucrats are talking about setting up classes in moral education (alongside their miserably failed “sex-education” classes), bemoaning the sad state of affairs in America’s schools and homes, this little story captures the heart of how morality in all its forms is taught to the next generation of Americans. It is taught by the parents. All the government money and all the platitudes from out of a book published by some collegiate genius from Harvard or Yale, cannot overcome a single case of dishonesty or immorality as it is seen by the child in the life of a parent. Such “lessons in real life” are the true teachers of morality and integrity.

I would venture that in most, if not all, those 40 instances where the wallet was not returned and the money pocketed, there are remembrances from long ago of how this grown- up’s parent did something that was dishonest and lacking in integrity before the eyes of that developing child. The parent, by example, taught the child to be dishonest. They may have thought those things were small and unimportant at the time, but they left a lasting impression. Now, do not misunderstand my remarks. I do not mean to suggest that these grown-ups are not responsible for their own dishonesty. At this point in time they are the only ones responsible for their actions. But we must take into consideration as we are raising our children that these lessons in life create impressions that last a lifetime and ultimately determine what sort of adults our children will someday be. They will be responsible for their own actions. But we must be very sure that we appreciate the importance of our present example in determining what direction they will choose when later they decide for themselves.

Let me cite one more example to illustrate this same point. At the sprawling Del Amo mall south of Los Angeles, the author records this incident: “Two boys in their early teens happened upon our wallet. One, in shorts and athletic shirt, gave a whoop as he pulled out the money. Talking excitedly, the two walked down the mall, eventually meeting a man who seemed to be the father of one of them. They showed him the wallet. All three left. We never got a call.” On that day this particular parent taught these two boys a lesson which will remain with them all of their lives. Sad to say, it was neither noble nor fine. Many parents, even some Christian parents, are doing the same thing before their children on a daily basis. Someday they will reap the bitter harvest of such behavior.

What kinds of life lessons are we teaching our children? Paul wrote, “Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Cor. 8.21). Let us be certain that we also provide for honest things in the sight of our children!