Following reviews of Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” Holly Finn brings in Cowboy Ethics and the Cowboy Code in her review in the Wall Street Journal, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” She contrasts the Cowboy Code with many examples of poor character shown by students and their parents – lying, cheating, stealing and doing anything to get ahead at many of our most prestigious schools. Of course she’s right about character versus greed and success at any price.
Whether the Code comes from Jim Owen’s book, "Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West" or from Ernest Morris’ “El Vaquero: The Cowboy Code,” the message is the same. Character counts. Character counts first and most. Or, as said elsewhere, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
Some of the crucial traits of Cowboy Ethics and different Cowboy Codes are:
- Live each day with courage.
- Take pride in your work.
- Always finish what you start.
- Do what has to be done.
- Be tough, but fair.
- When you make a promise, keep it.
- Ride for the brand.
- Talk less and say more.
- Remember that some things aren't for sale.
- Know where to draw the line.
- A cowboy never takes unfair advantage - even of an enemy.
- A cowboy never betrays a trust. He never goes back on his word.
- A cowboy always tells the truth.
- A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals.
- A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances.
- A cowboy is always a good worker.
- A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and his nation's laws.
- A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed.
- A cowboy is a Patriot.
- The highest badge of honor a person can wear is honesty. Be truthful at all times.
- Your parents are the best friends you have. Listen to them and obey their instructions.
- If you want to be respected, you must respect others. Show good manners in every way.
- Only through hard work and study can you succeed. Don't be lazy.
- Your good deeds always come to light. So don't boast or be a show-off.
- If you waste time or money today, you will regret it tomorrow. Practice thrift in all ways.
- Many animals are good and loyal companions. Be friendly and kind to them.
- A strong, healthy body is a precious gift. Be neat and clean.
- Our country's laws are made for your protection. Observe them carefully.
- Children in many foreign lands are less fortunate than you. Be glad and proud you are an American.
- I will be brave, but never careless.
- I will obey my parents. They DO know best.
- I will be neat and clean at all times.
- I will be polite and courteous.
But the Cowboy Code is not true; few cowboys really followed it. Yes, that’s right. Many of the exemplars are fictional or fictionalized characters like Hopalong Cassidy and Wild Bill Hickok. We can quibble with many of the sentiments and find situations in which, for example, parents are not always good, right and deserving of respect.
So what? The factual nature doesn’t matter. What matters is what spirit gets stimulated in our children’s hearts and even in us as adults. The history of the greatness of the human spirit and human endeavor is passed on generation after generation through stories that inspire each new individual to be great and to do good. It’s passed on in myth, legend and fiction, as well as through the lives and deeds of great men and women – great humans.
That’s the way human education works. What counts is what gets inspired in the heart of each child and each adult.
Won’t honesty and good character mean that our children will be beaten out by the cheaters? That’s what many parents are afraid of: the cheaters will get better grades, get into better schools and eventually get better jobs and careers; lying cheating and stealing are necessary for survival or success. But those predictions come from fear and aren’t necessarily true.
Step back from fear and think. Would we want our children to become or to marry people who are selfish, lying, cheaters? Don’t we want our children to have “Cowboy” character and to their live lives based on that?
If our children become witnesses or defenders, won’t they get into trouble? Maybe. Children or adults who speak out against harassment, bullying and abuse can get trouble focused on them. Children or adults who speak out against domestic violence, racism, religious persecution, genocide and terrorism can get trouble focused on them. We each decide what to do in specific situations.
What’s crucial is to know the difference between right and wrong. If we don’t know the difference, if we think that all values are the equal because there are so many different ones across the globe, we are making a grave mistake. Different values lead to different places and we choose the direction we will try to go.
The engine and the steering wheel. Traits and skills like grit, determination, perseverance, fortitude, endurance and resilience are our engine. We need the power of these abilities to get anywhere on the long road of life.
The values, beliefs and attitudes that are embodied in the humans who exemplify the Cowboy Code or Cowboy Ethics, whether as real as Lincoln, as fictionalized as Wild Bill Hickok or as fictional as Hopalong Cassidy, are our steering wheel.
We need both an engine and a steering wheel to get where we want to go.
What engine and steering wheel do we try to teach our children? What engine and steering wheel are we models of for our children? Which values are more important when some of ours conflict or are even mutually exclusive?