Integrity is definitely the most difficult of the Quaker values to discuss with children. This is partly because while it’s about being good and doing the right thing, it’s particularly about trustworthiness and inner honesty, so that’s complex. It’s also, in some ways, more about intent than actions, which is likewise complicated to talk about with children. It’s a very inward virtue, and the full idea of it — that having integrity means being a person whose moral self is integrated rather than inconsistent, whose actions are consistent with the promptings of their best self — isn’t something easily accessible at a young age. The idea of not living up to your own image of yourself is hard for my students to grasp.
This week, we went to see Lifeline Theatre’s production Fable-ous!, which is a composite of several of Aesop’s familiar fables. It’s a wonderful, clever show, with some fairly sophisticated points to make about what it means to have integrity, and we’ve drawn on it several times for our reflections over the last few days. The first question I asked the kids was: What were some moments in the play when people showed integrity? The answers came quickly: when one animal helped another, when one animal stood up for what she thought was true, when one animal refused to help the villain. The next question followed naturally: if the fox helps the hare, he has done a good deed — but why did he do it? The character of the fox in the play is, essentially, that he will do anything anyone asks of him, whether good or evil.
The much harder question was this: which characters had integrity? The tortoise is easy; she always does the right thing and explains her reasons clearly. The mouse is easy: she is the villain, scheming madly for her own profit and laying traps for the other animals. She does do one good deed, though.
The other characters are harder to categorize, and the class kept jumping back and forth in their opinions. The fox seems nice by the end, but he doesn’t really have reasons for doing good deeds. The wolf is a predator, but he’s straightforward and honest with the mouse; he refuses to help her in her schemes because he thinks she’s going at her goals in the wrong way and suggests some more positive ways she could gain respect. On the other hand, we see him put on a sheep costume to disguise himself for hunting. The lion is a bit foolish and ready to believe anything — but he seems nice and well-meaning, if rather loud. The hare is overly competitive at the beginning and rather arrogant, but he learns better by the end — and we mostly agreed that he showed his integrity most when he lied about how he’d lost the race.
We didn’t come to a final conclusion in our reflections. But well-constructed literature, in any form, offers exactly this sort of opportunity for exploration. Most of the characters aren’t perfectly virtuous, or always likable; even the villains may have good qualities. Individual actions are easy to categorize, but persons as a whole are more complex.