Eight-year-old Zachary Armstrong usually follows the rules. So when he came home from his school in Los Angeles crying because he was caught copying answers from another third-grader's test, his mom, Arianna, questioned herself. "I felt disappointed and wondered whether I could have done something differently," she says. Cheating happens more by the third grade as the workload gets heavier and standardized testing may begin, says Don MacMannis, Ph.D., a psychologist and coauthor of How's Your Family Really Doing? 10 Keys to a Happy Loving Family. And kids with poor impulse control are especially vulnerable. You may have talked to your child about cheating before, but now is a good time for a refresher course. Follow these steps.
Watch a movie like Space Jam or Wreck-It Ralph and ask your child what she thinks about the cheating characters and whether she knows anyone who has cheated. From there, explain that cheating is wrong because it's unfair to others and people who do it aren't earning things honestly. Many kids aren't clear on what's considered cheating, so talk about examples such as looking at a classmate's paper, writing "reminders" on her hand before a test, or giving herself a head start during a race. Then challenge her to see if she can determine whether certain scenarios, like copying a book report from a website or standing on her tiptoes to meet the height requirements at a theme park are cheating or not. Be sure to point out the consequences of getting caught cheating too, such as getting a bad grade and losing privileges at home.
Since homework stress may lead to cheating, praise your child's efforts ("Your handwriting looks really neat" or "You found lots of good research on this topic") rather than focusing exclusively on results. Assure him that learning and doing his best are more important than top scores. Also explain that getting a bad grade after genuine effort is better than getting a good grade when he's taken a shortcut, says Paula Mirk, director of education at the Institute for Global Ethics, in Rockport, Maine. Letting your child know that you don't require perfection will decrease anxiety and make it easier for him to do the right thing.
Because friendships and acceptance are important to kids, it can be difficult for them to turn away a classmate who is asking for answers to the quiz or to copy homework. "Usually, children don't know what to say, so they just go along with it," explains Dr. MacMannis. Prepare your child by practicing language she can use with would-be cheaters. For example, she could say, "I studied too hard to risk getting an 'F' for cheating" or "My parents would ground me for months if we got caught." Also, teach her to shift her body to block her work from rubberneckers and let her know it's okay to tell the teacher after class if someone copies her answers.
Suppose your kid overhears you taking credit for something you didn't do or telling his brother to pretend he's younger so you can pay a lower admission price to an event. Then he'll dismiss your "don't cheat" messages and imitate your behavior. To help him to avoid cutting corners or being dishonest, practice what you preach.
If your child cheats despite your warnings, follow through on any consequences you have discussed with her. Armstrong took the creative approach in dealing with Zachary's misdeed. She wrote out ten advanced-level words such as plagiarism and integrity and made him find and copy down their definitions from a dictionary. Says Armstrong: "I figured since he wanted to copy, I'd give him something to copy." Assure your child that learning and doing his best are more important than top scores.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Parents magazine.