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What do you do when no one’s watching?

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (November 1, 2014)

This morning, I was getting my usual latte at a coffee shop when a gentleman walked up to the counter beside me to order his coffee. He put his order down and handed the lady at the cashier a $500 note. She writes his name on a cup and then hands him the change. He places it in his wallet as he does a quick calculation of his change. Just after he places the notes in his wallet, he pulls it back out again and says to the cashier “I think you gave me too much. There’s an extra $20 in here”. The cashier looks slightly startled by her mistake and looks at the receipt again. Sure enough, she had given him an extra $20. He hands it back to her as he turns to me and says with a smile “It was too much money!”

As I walked away sipping on my morning latte, I was so encouraged to see this man’s act of honesty. At that point, he could have walked away with an extra $20 note and no one would have noticed. He could have gotten an extra coffee the next morning. But he chose not to. He chose to be honest and to do the right thing, even though no one else would have noticed if he hadn’t.

The famous writer C.S. Lewis once said “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” The man at the coffee shop had integrity. When no one was going to check on him to see if he was doing the right thing, he chose to do the right thing.

So often, I find that we do things because we either want to hear the praises of people or we have a fear of the consequences. So, for example, I might show my boss that I’m responsible with a project he gave me because I either want to be praised and recognized by him or because I’m scared of what he might do to me if I’m not. Or I might choose to have good manners when speaking to someone because I want them to praise me for being respectful or because I’m scared of how they will view me if I am bad mannered. And whilst those things might not necessarily be wrong, and may be a good motivator for doing what is good, the even more noble act is to do what is right simply because it is right.

And that is what I find most challenging to do myself and also to teach children. It’s relatively simple to teach a child to have good behaviour and to do what is expected of them. But it’s a lot harder when it’s not motivated by the need to get approval or by the fear of failure. It’s a lot harder to teach a child to do what is right, even when no one is watching. So for example, when I ask students what happens if they don’t do their homework, I think nine out of ten children will say “my parents and/or my teacher will be angry at me”. My wish is that they would say “Homework is my responsibility and I should do it because it’s the right thing to do”

And that’s where having a moral compass comes in. And my personal view is that a moral compass is embedded in us starting from a young age where learning right from wrong becomes so instilled in us that we do what’s right because somewhere inside us, we know it’s right.

So then, teaching children what’s right and wrong and giving them consequences for their good and bad behaviours aren’t for the purpose of getting the desired result as much as it is to slowly develop in them a moral compass so that they will do what’s right, even when no one is watching.


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