The first few weeks of school are special ones. Kids are still finding their way among classmates while trying to gauge their teachers' approach and expectations. Slates are clean and possibilities hang in the air. Parents often take the time to express to their children their own hopes and concerns for the school year. I start every September giving one son the you-must-do-your-best talk. Another son has just outgrown the annual you-need-to-be-more-organized talk and the third I prodded to move out of his comfort zone socially and in terms of extra curriculars. But I can say with some certainty that I never kicked off a school year with a conversation about academic dishonesty. And in the wake of cheating scandals this year at Harvard University, Stuyvesant High School and a Long Island SAT testing center, I am pretty sure I missed an important opportunity here. Did I fail to discuss cheating because I didn't think it was a problem at their school or was it because I didn't think it would be a problem for my child? Truth: It just never came up.
Academic cheating is a pervasive problem and if, as a parent, you have left the conversation until high school or even middle school, it may be getting late. 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. Cheating occurs among both weak and strong students, male and female students and part of the rise in incidence is blamed on increase pressure for good grades and the decreased stigma associated with academic dishonesty.
Cheating in school is not new, but the number of students engaging in such practice and the means with which to do so are rising steadily. 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.
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 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 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 only way to stop our children from cheating is to emphasize and re-emphasize how unacceptable it is in our homes and that any "achievement" gained by this means is not an achievement. It is only fair to acknowledge that our children are under greater pressure than we were, that competition is greater and their workload heavier. But 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." If it is a choice between cheating and getting a lower grade -- 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.
Cheating is contagious. Not surpringly, 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."
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.
This is an important, life changing conversation. Our children are living in a world where their sporting heroes are regularly felled by violations of well-known rules and they see adult behavior that would suggest that poor moral choices lead to desirable outcomes. This 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.