Kids and Cheating: How And When To Talk To Your Kids
I start every September giving back-to-school pep talks to my kids about trying hard, being organized, and befriending new kids. I can say with some certainty that I never kicked off a school year with a conversation about academic dishonesty. In the wake of recent cheating scandals, including the one at Harvard, I am pretty sure I missed an important opportunity.
Academic cheating is a pervasive problem and if, as a parent, you have left the conversation until high school, or even middle school, you may be late to the game. The number of students who cheat is simply staggering. According to the Educational Testing Service, between 75 and 98 percent of college students report having cheated in high school. And among middle schoolers, ⅔ admitted to cheating while 90% said they had copied another student’s homework.
Technology is part of the problem. Facilitated means of communication and ease of reproducing work means that students can move large quantities of information with stealth and the lines between helping, collaborating, and cheating become even more difficult to define. Like any crime, there are means and there is motive and while technology provides the means, increased academic pressure is widely viewed as the motive.
Young kids may not always know cheating when they see it and it may help them to talk through scenarios they will encounter. There is a spectrum that runs from helping to plagiarizing and even very young children will need to determine with some precision where various activities lie in this very broad range. Parents can help them by expounding on different situations in which students might find themselves. A classmate may text you a question about a problem; if you give them some help and they are in study hall that is helping, if they are in the exam room, cheating.
Cheating is contagious. Not surprisingly, kids will more easily slide into such behaviors if their friends are engaging in academic dishonesty. While we cannot pick our children’s friends and are unlikely to know what goes on inside the testing room, we can face the issue head on with explicit recognition that they will see such behavior and it is to be shunned. It is a chance to remind them of the coda of parenting, “I don’t care what other kids do, I am only raising you and your siblings and these are the rules in our home.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that we need to tell our children that cheating is wrong, that cheaters will probably get caught and certainly never prosper and that grades are not that important. Yet, here I believe the conventional wisdom is wrong. In this as in all parenting activities it is important to retain credibility. By telling our children that classmates who cheat will get caught and will not benefit by their deceit, we will simply be seen as naive, especially by our older children, and hopelessly out of touch with the 21st century classroom. They don’t think cheaters fail to prosper, they think we fail to understand.
Telling kids that grades are not that important will not square with anything our society tells them and in their initial meeting with their high school guidance counselor the first words out of her mouth will be, “There is nothing as important in your application to college as the transcript.” So this leaves the moral high ground; it is a tough place to stake out, a tough place to stay but ultimately, as parents, we know it is the right place to be. The world has not changed so much that right and wrong do not have a line running between them and as parents our job is to make it clear that were they to cheat our disappointment in them and the ensuing punishment will be excruciating for both parent and child.
I remembered to have this conversation with my kids every time they told me of a cheating incident at their school and the phrase I used was, “Take the D.” I tried to convince them that they would rather face my short-lived disappointment with a poor grade than my devastation, humiliation and sadness at my failures in parenting and their faulty moral compass. I let them know that far from going to bat for them, if they were found to be cheating, I would let them burn in the fires of both their school’s and our home’s disciplinary hell.
Talking about cheating at school is a conversation that needs to begin early and happen often and it must be just that, a conversation, because situations and ethical dilemmas that we never faced will confront our kids every day. It will ultimately be one of the most important conversations we will have because it touches the heart of everything we hope to do as parents in raising good people and good citizens.