By Bill Prachar email@example.com
When our daughter, Alex, was in the first or second grade she came to us one day with a
“serious” problem. She told us that one of the girls in her class said she would tell our daughter
a secret if she promised not to tell anyone else. Alex agreed and was told the secret. When
Alex came to us, she didn’t want to be a tattletale, and she didn’t want to break her promise,
but she was worried about the secret. She was clearly troubled.
I wasn’t in the ethics business at the time, just in the parenting business, along with my wife.
We talked about the importance of promise keeping and loyalty. You only make a promise, we
told her, if you intend to keep it. Loyalty and friendship, we said, were at the core of not being
a tattletale, and letting our friends solve their own issues their own way. Promise-keeping,
loyalty and friendship — hmm, sounds like Ethics 101 that even a 7-year old can understand.
“But,” or daughter objected, “What if the secret you are told is about someone doing bad things?”
To borrow a phrase from today — OMG — our ethics lesson just got a whole lot tougher. We tried
to explain, poorly I thought at the time, that although promise keeping, loyalty and friendship
were very important values, sometimes other values come up that may be more important.
For instance, we suggested, if we promised to keep a secret, and we were told a person was going
to steal a car, then it would probably be OK to break the promise and tell someone to prevent the
theft. The value protecting life and property we told her can, sometimes (but not always — gulp)
trump other values.
We figured we had lost her, since we weren’t really sure our explanation was very good, but, as is
often the case with kids, she was way ahead of us. She decided to tell us the “secret.”
Apparently, Alex’s friend had told her that one of the boys was bringing matches to school and
lighting them behind one of the buildings during recess. She knew that matches could cause
fire and result in serious injuries or property damage. She was troubled because intuitively she
knew that the danger was more important than being branded a tattletale. We told her she did
the right thing, and we’d let the teachers know so they could discover the problem on their own.
It’s funny to think of it now, but Alex’s problem was at the core like virtually every ethical dilemma
we face as adults — competing values. Our daughter did the right thing — she sought help. At
WM, when we are faced with competing values or see “gray,” we need to follow her example and
seek help — from a colleague, from a family member, from a supervisor, and yes, even from the
Helpline. Seeking help is not being a “snitch,” it is doing the right thing.