Cheating in School: Some Important Lessons


The first few weeks of school are special ones. New classes, new teachers, new privileges and along with them, new rules. Yet there is one rule in school that never alters, although it can be so easily overlooked or even misunderstood. The rule? No cheating.

Every year as I talked to my kids about hopes and expectations for the school year, I skipped right over the big, bad topic of cheating. 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 children? Truth: it just never came up.

High School Series

The number of students who cheat is 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, two-thirds admitted to cheating while 90 percent said they had copied another student’s homework. Academic dishonesty is a pervasive problem and as a parent if you have left this conversation until high school, or even middle school, it may be getting late.

The concept of cheating, as distinguished from sharing, may be confusing and that is where parents are so badly needed. Technology allows students to easily move large quantities of information with stealth and the lines between helping, collaborating, and plagiarizing become difficult for a child to distinguish.

There is a spectrum that runs from helping to cheating and younger kids may not always know cheating when they see it. Parents can aid their children by expounding on different situations in which students might find themselves. A classmate may text a question about a problem. Giving them information when they are in study hall is helping, yet passing the same information when they are in the exam room is cheating.

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 dead wrong. In this, as in all parenting activities, credibility is everything.

If we tell our children that their classmates who cheat will get caught and will not benefit by their deceit, they will see us as naive and hopelessly out of touch. Telling kids that grades are not terribly important will only make us seem even more out of touch. They won’t think cheaters fail to prosper, they will think we fail to understand.

So this leaves the moral high ground; it is a tough place to stake out, a tough place to reside 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 really a failure.

It is fair to acknowledge that our children are under greater academic 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 bright line running between them, and as parents our job is to make they know where that line is located.  We need to make clear that if they 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 low 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. Even if we don’t hear of cheating incidents, the sheer numbers suggest that our kids will be witnessing them in their classrooms. Talking about this is a chance to remind them of the watchword 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.”


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.

How do you teach your children the value of being honest?

Lisa Endlich Heffernan is a writer, blogger, and the author of Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success and Be the Change. She lives in New York and writes regularly about life with teens at Grown and Flown.

Photo credit Flickr Sclafani and Chiinaira.o3.

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