Is Your Child a Cheater?                                              By Abby Margolis Newman

    Kids are coming up with new ways to cheat, copy, and steal. It's up to you to help them learn right from wrong.

    Cheating. Even good students can be tempted to cut corners from time to time. And the practice of cheating is almost as old as school itself, though its manifestations have changed over the years.

    Kids often begin cheating when they start middle school. As tests increase and homework involves more research, students learn both the ways and means to cut corners. Also, because kids often have so many more teachers in middle school, families and teachers don't often have close relationships like they had in elementary school. So children may be willing to take more risks.

    The Evolution of Cheating
    When I was in middle school, in the '70s, the preferred methods were crib notes or answers written in ballpoint pen on palms, or copying word-for-word from the encyclopedia. As students and classrooms have evolved over the generations, so have ways to cheat.


    Recently, a student at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut -- my alma mater and a school which regularly churns out dozens of Ivy Leaguers -- pasted a cheat sheet for his chemistry exam on the inside of a water-bottle label.

    Computers have brought advancements to the academic world that we never dreamed of while perusing the World Book. The Web makes it much easier for your child to do research -- but also easier to cut and paste information from an Internet source and pass it off as his own work.

    "Today's middle school students have been using computers since they could walk," says Don McCabe, Ph.D., a professor at Rutgers University who has done several studies on cheating and plagiarism. At the same time, other factors -- including out-of-control grade pressure -- have affected kids' attitudes toward cheating.

    Do Kids Care?
    McCabe's studies show alarmingly cavalier attitudes toward cheating. Of 4,500 high school students he interviewed during the 2000/2001 school year, a full 75 percent admitted having cheated at least once on a test, which is up from 50 percent in 1993 and 25 percent in 1963. Among 7th graders, 64 percent said they had collaborated with other students when they were supposed to be working alone; 48 percent admitted having copied homework from someone else, and 87 percent said they had let someone else copy homework from them.

    The stigma attached to cheating, apparently, has been losing strength over the years and is now hanging on by a thread. Teachers, parents, and administrators need to work together, McCabe says, to ensure not only that children understand what constitutes cheating, but that the consequences are severe enough to act as a deterrent. "Peer pressure becomes enormous in middle school," he points out. "So if it's considered okay or even cool to cheat, kids will do so with impunity."

    Internet-related cheating is also rampant, but as opposed to crib notes or copying someone's paper during a test -- practices kids know are wrong -- many computer-savvy kids are unclear about what is and is not plagiarism. "Kids cut and paste from the Internet with abandon," says Tom Lickona, professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland. "The information doesn't seem to be linked to a particular source or author like a magazine article or a book -- it just seems there for the picking, like fruit off a tree."

    A rapidly expanding form of Internet plagiarism is the rise of so-called "paper mills," Web sites providing fully written term papers which students can download (usually for free) and submit as their own writing. These sites have been multiplying at an astounding rate: in March of 1999, about 35 such sites existed; by the end of 2003, there were more than 250.

    Happily for teachers and parents, there exist counter-sites, such as www.plagiarism.org and www.turnitin.com, which provide tools for detecting plagiarized papers. (Enterprising cheaters may soon come up with counter-counter-sites to block the detection tools, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.) Teachers should inform students that these Web sites exist and that the teachers are prepared to use them. "I want to instill the fear in them that there's a good possibility they'll get caught," says Emy Lopez, a 7th grade teacher at El Capitan Middle School in Fresno, California.

    Keep Your Child Honest
    So, what can teachers and parents do to encourage kids to behave ethically in a world where cheating runs rampant, not just among school peers but among business leaders, politicians, and other adult "role models"? "Even in a rotten world, it's possible to raise a moral child, if we make it a high priority," says Lickona. Some kids think of cheating as a victimless crime, that it's "not really hurting anyone," he adds. "They need to know that it's a violation of trust, that it puts those who do not cheat at an unfair disadvantage, and that it undermines their own self-respect."

    You'll need to develop sensitive radar in order to discern whether your child may be plagiarizing or cutting corners on homework assignments. Is she devoting an appropriate amount of time to each assignment? "If your child is doing homework too quickly, that's a warning sign," says McCabe. "Sit down with her and say, 'I see you're doing a project on X topic, let's talk about it.' You can tell if she has knowledge of the subject."

    Another red flag is a disparity in quality between in-class work and homework. "Kids who perform rather poorly on in-class assignments and do glowing work on homework assignments are probably cheating," McCabe says.

    Here are a few additional pointers from our experts:

    • Have a discussion with your child about cheating and plagiarism, and make sure she is clear about her school's (and your) expectations. If the school has a written ethics policy, review it together. If the school doesn't have such a policy, suggest they craft one.
    • Avoid becoming over-involved in homework. Says Lickona, "There is a purpose to the homework. The teachers need to know what the students know, not what their parents know."
    • Lower the grade pressure! "With such intense competition to get into college, parents may be fostering an ends-justify-the-means mentality, and implicitly condoning shortcuts to better grades," says McCabe.
    • Don't ignore reality. As tempting as it might be to deny that your child would cheat or plagiarize, or to attack his teacher or the school for wrongly accusing him, take a step back: "Many parents are simply in denial, and they need to entertain the idea that their kid could be doing this," says McCabe.

    The most critical thing you can do to avoid raising a cheater is to instill in your child a sense of pride and integrity in his work. "Cheating is a form of lying," says Lickona. "You are deceiving another person, and this damages your character." Parents, he says, need to help their kids keep things in proper perspective: "If you have a 4.0 from Harvard but no moral compass, you don't have what it takes for a successful life."