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Keep Kids from Cheating in School

Jon Whittle

Lay Off, Mom

The main reason kids cheat as they get older, experts say, is pressure to get top marks. This pressure comes from both parents (“You won’t get into a good high school or college if you get C’s!”) and teachers (“We have a very important test coming up for our school!”).

“I’ve had kids who get money or some other reward from their parents for having really good grades,” says Teresa Burke, a third-grade teacher in Blacksburg, VA, and a mom of two. Such emphasis can give students the idea that getting an A—rather than earning one—is what matters. So why not cheat?

“There’s such a natural tendency for parents to say, ‘Let me see your work’ and look at the grade,” Anderman says. “My number one advice for them is, instead of saying ‘How did you do on the spelling test?’ ask ‘What did you learn?’ Or ‘What new really cool math thing did you do in class this week?” If your child does poorly on an assignment, stress your concern about whether she’s learning what she needs to know—not whether she got a C-minus. Assure her that everyone makes mistakes and that you just expect her to try her hardest. To further show kids that knowledge is the important thing, relate school lessons to the real world as much as you can, educators suggest. When you see a “25% Off” sign at a clothing store, for instance, ask your child, “How many dollars could we save on this shirt?”

Be a follower...

...of the rules, that is. If you want your kids to believe that cheating is wrong, think twice before you park in that handicapped space without a permit or order from the 10-and-under menu for your 11-year-old. And be sure to point out your honest behavior to them and connect it to being honest at school (“I could save time by parking in that space, but it wouldn’t be fair to people who really need it—just like it wouldn’t be fair to your classmates if you saved time by copying their homework”). “We send our children messages by our own behaviors, and children take in a lot more than we even realize, consciously and unconsciously,” says Gary Niels, a Pittsburgh headmaster who has studied cheating while on a fellowship at Columbia University’s Teacher's College.

Kids may be influenced by other people’s dishonesty, too—from classmates to people in the news—so be on the lookout for “teachable moments” outside your family. “Ask your child, ‘Who wants to end up like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire?’” says Lickona, recalling both ballplayers’ scandals over steroid use. “‘These guys were brought to shame and have no reason to hold their heads up anymore. Bernie Madoff not only hurt thousands of people [through his Ponzi scheme] but brought great disgrace to his family.’”