How to Talk to Kids About Cheating — and Drugs, Sex and, Well, Everything
Does your household culture encourage unethical behavior?
You’ve seen the cheating scandals: Sixty-one cadets at West Point found guilty of cheating. Seventy-one New York City high school students caught sharing answers via text. Or perhaps you’ve noted the surge of online companies that seem to do students’ homework for them.
Your angelic progeny would never engage in such deceit, right? Think again: 86% of college students say they’ve cheated. So yes, this is yet another topic that you need to address head on, before your child engages in damaging idiocy.
Psychologists say that hollering, “Don’t cheat!” won’t cut it. This is all about values. You need to help your children identify their values, because values guide decisions. “Expectations are offshoots of values,” says leading child psychologist Ross Greene, author of “Raising Human Beings.” “If your kids are having no trouble meeting your expectations then there’s probably nothing to talk about.” This never happens to anyone.
The lightweight version of a cheating conversation goes like this: You casually toss out a situation, such as, “Imagine that next week you don’t know an answer on a test, and you have the opportunity to copy your friend’s answer. How would you make a choice in that moment?” Let the kid answer, then offer to talk it through: “Let’s think about this more together, before you’re actually at that crossroad.”
Know that you’re dealing with someone constitutionally primed for risky behavior. “Their frontal lobe is not developed until they’re 25, so that means that kids are just more impulsive and less focused on long-term outcomes and consequences,” says clinical psychologist Bobbi Wegner, a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Groops, an online mental wellness platform. Fighting an underdeveloped frontal lobe is a losing battle, so your job here is to facilitate children’s own internal compass, in hopes of directing them away from their own stupidity.
What to say before cheating happens
Identify overarching values. “It’s really helpful to have them articulate their values, and then discuss concretely about how they’re actually using those values in real life,” Wegner says. This means first asking your offspring what type of person they aspire to be, and acknowledge that person’s values, such as kindness, morality, fun and generosity. Questions you might ask include:
—Describe to me the person you want to be. What are some of that person’s values? (For younger children, ask, What words would you use to describe that person?)
—How would that person handle a situation where cheating was an option? Lying? Not being truthful?
—What have you done today that represents these values?
The last question grounds the values in day-to-day behaviors. “A lot of this is really about raising awareness and consciousness,” Wegner says. Then slyly shift to an example that involves athletic or academic cheating: What about fair? Or honest?
What to say after your kid cheats
Do not yell. Do not judge. Do not shame. “Be really curious about their motivation,” Wegner says. What drove your child to cheat? Then collaborate on a solution. Examples of what you might say:
—I noticed that you are having difficulty doing your own work on this assignment/test. What’s up? What are you trying to accomplish by cheating? What expectation were you trying to meet?
—What was the upside and downside of your cheating?
—Well, our family really values fairness and doing our own work. It’s important because…
—What are other ways that you could accomplish your goal that’s more in line with our family values?
The answers here may surprise you. For example, your kid might tell you that their piles of homework are too much. Or perhaps organic chemistry is too hard, but they want to be a doctor. Or maybe your child thinks that the probability of getting found out is low, so why not? Or perhaps your child doesn’t see a problem using a calculator to do multiplication worksheet busywork.
This is where it gets interesting: Do you really care if your bored kid, who already understands multiplication, uses a calculator? Greene says that perhaps a win-at-all-costs parent won’t mind, or will say something like, “I completely get that the amount of homework is ridiculous, and I don’t mind you fudging on some of it that is stupid and doesn’t matter.” Others will lay down the (ethical) law. This is why beforehand, you want to privately ask yourself how your household culture might be inadvertently encouraging of the behavior. Do you focus on grades, say, to the exclusion of learning?
How to have every conversation
The same strategy applies to other scenarios where your faultless spawn might enact an eyebrow-raising choice. Think drinking, drugs, sexual activity, stealing and gossiping. The strategy here is three steps, Greene says:
- Hear why the child is having difficulty meeting an expectation.
- Explain why you think it’s important for the kid to meet the expectation.
- Collaboratively come up with a solution that works for everyone.
Greene knows what he’s talking about. His nonprofit, Lives in the Balance, is dedicated to non-punitive, collaborative techniques of managing children’s challenging behaviors.
You can see here that prior conversations of naming values provide a platform to work from. You may need to connect the dots for your beloved spawn: “How did having your friend write your paper align with your value of always doing your own work?”
As unethical behavior goes, cheating is unique because it’s a crime of opportunity, and perpetrators usually consider it a mild deviance, Wegner says. Unlike, say, stealing $1,000 or punching someone, many children and parents don’t perceive its impact on others. Instead, a cheater’s mental monologue will say, What’s the big deal? No one’s gonna know. It’s just one answer/test/paper. This is all extenuated by high-achievement and perfectionism pressures, and a pandemic that has mushroomed both anxiety and the opportunities for online cheating. “People don’t make good decisions when they’re stressed. The sense of morality, and right and wrong, can shift,” Wegner says.
Greene suggests that you can certainly articulate your own values in these conversations, explicitly stating your thoughts on integrity. “You just have to be prepared for the eventuality that your kid at some point might decide that her values are not the same as yours.”