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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


How Does Character Get Passed on to Kids?

What would you do if you found a wallet containing $50, a cell phone number, a business card and a family photo? That’s precisely what Reader’s Digest aimed to find out by dropping 12 such lures on sidewalks and in parks in 16 major cities in Europe, North and South American and Asia. Of the 192 wallets “lost,” 47% were returned. Hmmm. About half of them.

Passing on Character

Helsinki, Finland, wins the honesty test by giving back 11 of the 12 wallets, earning the designation “The Saints” from Reader’s Digest. “Finns are naturally honest; it’s typical for us, ” said Lasse Luomakoski, a 27-year-old business student who was one of the people who handed over the leather and the loot.

The “Shame on You” for least honest pointed fingers at Bucharest, Romania; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Zurich, Switzerland, whose locals returned four wallets; as well as to Prague, The Czech Republic, where three wallets were returned; and to Madrid, Spain, with two wallets. The city in which you should tightly clutch your cash is Lisbon, Portugal, where only one wallet boomeranged back to the owner.

What predicts whether the wallet was pocketed or turned in? Young and old, men and women, as well as those in wealthy and poor areas handed back the dropped goods. The deciding factor: upbringing and sometimes experience.

“People who returned the wallets, ” says Raimo Moysa, editor-in-chief, Reader’s Digest International Magazines, “told us over and over ‘This is the only right thing to do. I’ve been taught to do this.’ Occasionally, someone said that he or she had lost a wallet and it was returned, so that person decided to do the same.”

What Do We Learn About Character?

In the end, values and character are passed down to the next generation by example. I know, it’s old news—but this is key for us as adults to understand. The reason folks returned wallets was two reasons:

  1. They saw their parents model it and teach it.
  2. Someone returned their wallet when they lost it.

In other words, character is learned when it’s seen. Social scientists call this moral intelligence. It is like a language—it can be learned by watching others speak the language. It’s no wonder cheating is so rampant in schools today—look at the adults that students have watched in the news over the last ten to fifteen years. We have led the way in scandals ourselves, over money (Wall Street, Enron, Tyco, Worldcom) over sex (Tiger Woods, Anthony Weiner, et all),

This is encouraging to me. Now…all we have to do is practice it.


Host an event for parents that can prepare them to help kids meet the challenge of becoming authentic adults.

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photo credit: somegeekintn via photopin cc


  1. Timothy Lynn Burchfield on October 18, 2013 at 7:15 am

    As part of our orientation to newly selected young men and women, I take the opportunity to explain “Sexual Harassment” as written in the Federal Law. The violation of this law is always men towards women. I feel it is important for both young men am women to know exactly what “Sexual Harassment” is and what it is not.
    I complete the discussion, which is somewhat uncomfortable by telling the young men they will learn how to respect women from watching older men respect women. I place every male who works in our organization on notice that they have the responsibility to set the standard of respect for women.
    You are exactly right. Our children learn best from seeing the right behavior demonstrated before them by adults they respect.

    • Tim Elmore on October 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      Thanks Timothy for sharing! Great example and application of this principle.

  2. John Gallagher on October 18, 2013 at 8:02 am

    Glad I am not off the reservation. When I saw the question on Facebook, I said to myself, “It must be modeled”. Sounds like a country song in a way. Well, Rodney Atkins sang a song called “Watching You”. Check it out on YouTube. Thanks for sharing, Tim.

    • Tim Elmore on October 18, 2013 at 1:15 pm

      Thanks John! I’ll look up that song on YouTube.

  3. arpit goel on October 19, 2013 at 12:51 am

    Excellent article Tim!

  4. John Korstad on October 19, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing this important message Tim! Parents, family, friends, people in church, …all of us reveal what’s truly within us. No matter how ‘thick’ our facade is, our true nature will eventually come out. That’s why we need to continually decrease, so that Christ continually increases (Jn. 3:30). “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)

    • Tim Elmore on October 23, 2013 at 7:44 am

      Thanks John, appreciate your kind words and encouragement.

  5. Layla on January 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    I totally agree that positive influences and role models are key to modeling good behavior but what do you think part of it could be nature as well? I grew up around a dysfunctional family that was extremely dishonest with each other, lied on their taxes and did many other questionable acts. Whenever I was asked to do something that wasn’t right, I always hesitated or said we shouldn’t be doing that. Where does this come from??

    • Tim Elmore on January 3, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      You’re absolutely right. I think it’s nature and nurture. Some kids have an innate sense of values and character; a sense of conscience regardless of how immoral their family/environment may be and vice versa. That’s why the “nurture” part of character development is so crucial. It is the only portion in our control.

  6. Azra Ali on August 3, 2020 at 1:37 pm

    I totally agree with the article- “character is learned when it’s seen”. As educators, responsible adults and as mentors we need to practice good morals and behavior to build a responsible and accountable adults.

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How Does Character Get Passed on to Kids?