Recent reports show that the majority of teenagers believe that cheating on tests and papers is acceptable behavior. This may come as no surprise with the abundance of news stories and reports showing that the most “successful” business people, politicians and executives have, in fact, “cheated” to get to where they are. Add this to personal experiences that may include dishonesty in the family or in other situations, and it can be a true challenge for parents to set a “cheat-free” standard.
Most children will cheat at some stage or other in their early development. Before really understanding cheating and ideals of fair play, children may behave as if the end justifies the means. It is up to parents and other authority figures, of course, to convey exactly what constitutes cheating and why it isn’t acceptable behavior.
The world is seldom black and white, however, and it can be a confusing, grey area for parents and children to maneuver. For example, when one of my own children was in first grade, she got caught “cheating” on a spelling test. Now spelling has always been one her most naturally good subjects – even when she was a beginning reader. During the test, she had been writing her words out lightly in pencil on her desk to make sure that she had the correct spelling before writing it on her paper (she is also a gifted artist so having neat, tidy papers was a priority to her). The teacher saw the words on her desk when she went out to recess and accused her of cheating. Mom was called and informed of the “punishment” for cheating and the disappointment and doubt this created for the teacher. In the meeting that ensued, my daughter explained what she had been doing but the teacher refused to consider her explanation and told her she was cheating. Despite my attempts to explain to my daughter what had happened and why it was considered cheating, when in fact, it wasn’t – the “grey” area fueled a lasting distrust of authority and a very real life experience that she remembers to this day.
For parents who may wrestle with the concept of “cheating” themselves, it might be hard to establish an expectation of our children. Is it cheating when we don’t return an overpayment of change at the department store? Is it cheating when we do whatever we can to get ahead at work, including taking credit for a project that wasn’t entirely our own? Is it cheating when we run personal errands and make personal calls while being paid for being “on the clock”? Modeling less-than-model behavior for our children can help create a world where cheating is tolerated.
However, modeling honest behavior by parents is not always enough to combat a world and society that thrive on cheating. As kids are growing up, the will witness the disparity and see what looks like successful people who are surviving with cheating and less than honorable behavior, while mom and dad may seem to have less because they are “chumps”. A parent can only hope that in the long run, the values taught in the home will outweigh the values taught in the outside world.
What to do if your child is cheating? It is important that parents take into account the nature of the incident. Is it a one-time offense fueled by peer pressure? Persistent cheating is almost always an indication that a child feels disadvantaged and unable to compete on a level playing field. Or, it may mean that a child is feeling a great deal of pressure to perform, win, or succeed based on external standards. Parents should keep in mind that a child does not feel better about herself or himself when cheating, each time he or she is allowed to get away with such behavior, it actually builds on feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. If a parent is to combat the pressures of the world encouraging children to participate in cheating or dishonest behavior, he or she will need to try to address the underlying reasons that a child is cheating. By taking the focus off of the “result” and putting it back on to character and the process, parents may be able to help children let go of the inadequate feelings that contribute to cheating behaviors.