Cheating at School – Start the Discussion Early

Lisa writes: 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. In looking back, I wonder why I never discussed cheating at school.

Cheating in school, academic dishonesty, cheating, EDS, educational testing service

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 extra curricularly.  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 at school because I didn’t think it was a problem in their classes 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 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.”

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.



  1. says

    It is a disheartening fact, indeed, that there is more and more cheating going on at all levels in schools. This trend is one of the outcomes of our intense focus on standardized testing in education, and is one that was predicted by teachers when the whole test craze began.
    When people work for the intrinsic rewards of learning, growing, creating and fulfilling themselves, they will work collaboratively and everyone benefits. When they only work for an external reward, they will go to great lengths to grab those rewards. This is especially true in a system which constantly tells children that test scores/grades will make or break their futures.
    I have watched ten year olds sobbing over state tests because they think that they have just made it impossible to ever be accepted to college.
    Sorry for the long reply; this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart!

  2. says

    One of my son’s friends cheated his way through high school and got A’s and B’s. His parents knew all about it. When he got to college, he couldn’t handle the work. There are no words for what I think of these parents.

  3. says

    It is far more difficult now I think than it was when we were young and our children were younger. I hear parents talking about putting their kids on adderall so “they’ll do better on the SAT’s” and I am horrified. You hear of pre-schools that run $40K a year. These kids are living in a pressure cooker and the concept of education is lost in the chase. Even if we create a safe space for them where their efforts are acknowledged and celebrated, the pressure is relentless. Summer vacation? No way, you’d best be involved in something all summer for that college transcript. I don’t ever remember talking to my kids about cheating unless they told me about someone getting caught. But I think that most of us convey a sense to them that it doesn’t occur to us that they would cheat, because there’s no reason to. “take the D” That’s great advice on two levels. One, you’ve let them know you don’t think a D is the end of the world. Two you think cheating is stupid and foolish. Kids don’t like to do things their parents think are stupid and foolish unless its something off that charts that has nothing to do with academics. Kids seem to respond to that or at least they used to. It’s a tough one though.

  4. says

    When my son was in high school there was a huge cheating scandal that involved many students we knew and, even more hard to believe, a student’s parents. (Well, knowing the parents, it really wasn’t so hard to believe.) Most of the students received a slap on the wrist, and many of them are now in the best schools in the country. So much for “cheaters never prosper.” The problem was that the school did not want to go down the litigation and spoil your reputation road, so it was all swept under the rug. A little community service and no one was the wiser. I still have not forgotten it, and don’t think I ever will.

  5. says

    Thanks Lisa. My kids ARE NOT going to want to play Candyland and Go Fish! with me this weekend! Should I start as early as 3 and 6??

  6. Gabby McCree says

    My kids knew exactly where their parents stood on the cheating issue. My husband talked about the downfall of “incremental cheating”. My response to the pressure and the culture which emphasizes achievement over living a life of honer was “don’t LET ANYONE tell you something is a deal breaker”. I told my kids over and over….it’s a myth that being a straight A student and going to the perfect college leads to success and happiness. Instead My husband and I emphasized working hard, not being a quiter, learning from taking risks and making mistakes and having some fun along the way. I explained that I knew many pretty miserable adults who had followed the secret formula. Finally my oldest has her “AHA Moment” when she went to college realizing that some top students were struggling…..she said she was grateful that she had learned HOW to study for those harder subjects because she had not cheated in HS.

  7. cheatsjungle says

    Well, cheating isn’t really good for anyone. You can pass an exam, pass the school but u will have a problem when an employer will require something from u – that’s the truth 😉

  8. says

    This is really interesting. I honestly never thought to talk to my kids about this. I expect high moral standards from them. Yes, your grades matter for college but ultimately where you go to college won’t even matter after your first job. We have told our kids that many times. I just had a discussion with my middle schooler about this because of your post. He informed me that no, he’s never cheated, and when I told him the statistics, he said “Mom, that’s just not right.” I’ll keep my guard up though a little more now.

    • says

      I wonder if some kids, who would never dream of cheating, don’t even see it going on. They are busy doing what they need to do and it doesn’t occur to them to worry about what others are doing. The statistics are fairly consistent study after study, so the conversation cannot hurt in case he encounters it in the future.