The Cheating Child

Why so many kids cheat, and how to help them stop.


Let's face it. We live in a competitive society. So much of what we do -- from making a living to following professional sports teams -- is a competition. So it's no wonder that children as young as 2 already put an importance on winning. It's this desire to be successful that drives the majority of children to cheat at one time or another.

But how do you handle these cheating episodes and what can you do to put an end to them? Here are some helpful tips on what motivates a child to cheat and how you should deal with it.

Cheating at Games

Watch how children play board games or card games and you'll be surprised by the competitiveness, sometimes deteriorating into cheating. Kids under the age of 5 generally don't attach any moral value to cheating. They're just playing. And the kids they're playing with often won't hold a grudge. Kids between the ages of 5 and 7, however, will get a bit more sneaky with their cheating -- quietly taking an extra turn in a game or purposely miscounting when moving a playing piece across a board.

At this point, the kids usually know they're doing something wrong, but they don't really care, explains Lawrence Balter, PhD, a child psychologist in New York. By the time a child is 8 years old, however, he's well aware that cheating is wrong. If a child this age continues to cheat, it may be the result of a feeling of inadequacy or underperformance more than a desire to win. And now there's more at risk than just getting in trouble; older children who have habit of bending the rules are often labeled as "cheaters," which can irreparably damage their relationships with their peers.

Cheating in School

Parents are often devastated when they find out that their child copied someone else's homework or peeked over a classmate's shoulder during an exam. But it's actually more common than you think. According to a 2001 survey of 4,500 high school students by Donald L. McCabe, a Rutgers University professor, 97 percent of the respondents admitted to at least one activity that would be considered questionable when it comes to academic integrity. So why do so many kids cheat? Most cheating episodes fall into one of two categories:

  • They're trying to live up to expectations. Kids are under a great deal of pressure to perform well in school. Many children believe that their entire future rests on their grades. If parents or teachers expect them to always to perform exceedingly well, then cheating can become a self-defense mechanism under the strain of this tremendous pressure. A child may feel that she has no other option than to cheat as a means of achieving success.
  • They just don't feel like doing the work. Technology can be a double-edged sword. The Internet, PDAs, and cell phones help make children's lives more organized. But these gizmos have also made cheating a lot easier than it ever was when we were in school. The Internet has spawned an entire industry dedicated to the "sharing" of prewritten papers. And kids can e-mail answers to one another through PDAs. Some children have a natural tendency to do the least amount of work necessary to get something done. Now, it's easier than ever for them to pawn off someone else's work as their own.

When Your Child Cheats

The most important thing you can do if you find your child cheating is to act immediately. It's important that a child find out right away that he hasn't gotten away with anything. Here's an age-by-age guide to handling your child's cheating:

Under age 5

Respond immediately, but in a light manner -- even making a joke of the situation. This will let her know that cheating is something she can't get away with without punishing her for doing something that she probably didn't know was wrong in the first place.

Ages 5 and up

With children this age, you should be a bit stricter in your response. But avoid excessive punishment. Instead, sit your child down and ask her why she cheated. Discuss the seriousness of what she did and ask her about the kinds of stresses and pressures that may have motivated her to cheat.

If your child is 8 or older

If a child this age continues to have a chronic cheating problem or gets labeled a "cheater" at school, he may need further help. Often, cheating at this age is a symptom of an internal emotional struggle or peer pressure. Seek assistance from a mental health counselor or a child guidance clinic.

Preventing Future Cheating

While the majority of children cheat from time to time, there are things a parent can do to prevent their child from repeating this behavior. Here are some guidelines:

  • Set a good example. Take a good look at your own life. Do you or your spouse "cheat" from time to time? If a cashier gives you too much change, do you return it? Have you told little white lies on your income taxes? Be aware that those are the moral values you are teaching your child. Be sensitive to the examples you set.
  • Stress that winning isn't everything. Because our society puts so much emphasis on winning, parents need to counteract that message at home. Make sure your child knows that performing honestly and losing is more honorable than cheating and winning.
  • Lower your expectations. A large percentage of children who cheat are motivated by a desire to meet their parents' expectations. Let your child know that you love her and are proud of her even when she doesn't win the spelling bee or gets a bad grade.
  • Nurture your child's desire to do the right thing. Kids like to feel good about themselves and what they're doing. Encourage your child to value honesty, to feel pride in a job well done, and to foster love of learning and knowledge for its own sake.
  • Let your child see you sweat. Kids value hard work because they see their parents working hard. If you don't cut corners, your child will learn not to.
  • Teach your child how to cope with failure. Let your child see that you too have ideals -- and sometimes you fall short of them. Talk with him about how you cope with failure, so he learns how to handle it, too. It's fear of failure that leads many kids to cheat.

Sources: National PTA; Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5-12 (Bantam 1999); American Academy of Pediatrics; Lawrence Balter, PhD

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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