In Connecticut, investigators are looking intowhether a principal got her teachers to prompt students to change incorrect answers on a state test.
Like a few school administrators and instructors, some kids also give in to the temptation to cheat to boost exam scores.
Recently a mom whose child got busted in class asked what she should do. Her mortified child is contrite and paying consequences at school. Should punishment occur at home, too?
To get advice for this mother, I checked with some of my favorite experts – child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character, Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy, co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? – and my own kids! Their food for thought:
Don't rush to punish. "It is sometimes hard for parents to recognize this, but punishment always backfires when the parent tries to do it because discipline is impersonal and belongs in group situations — like classrooms, glee clubs, factories, or armies," says Berger. "Parents who are always trying to discipline their children have children who constantly misbehave." (She notes that taking away the keys from a child who drives in an unsafe manner is different. It's a matter of safety, not punishment.)
Figure out why your child cheated. Try to understand the reasons behind the offense. Is your child suffering from an unrecognized problem that makes it difficult for him or her to meet classroom demands? "Many children with learning disabilities cheat in school out of fear of failure, out of anger and hopelessness, or a combination of anxiety and resentment," says Berger. "Meeting with the teacher in a mood of helpfulness and teamwork, rather than accusations and suspicion, can often shed light on this." Kids don't cheat if they know what the answers are. My 12-year-old suggests talking to the teacher and saying, "My child is having trouble with geography." Or perhaps your child is dealing with depression or anxiety – or with a death or a divorce, she says. "These problems do not provide an excuse, but they supply a context which the parent needs to address in ways beyond the particular instance of cheating."
Understand the academic environment. A child may say, "But everybody cheats!" says Berger. "This doesn't make it right, but it also supplies a context in which the grown-ups may need to address curriculum reform and school leadership as well as student morale."
Share your emotions. "It is only natural that a parent whose child has been cheating at school is going to feel terribly wounded, critical, angry, saddened, frightened, and humiliated," says Berger. "I believe that it is right and proper for the parent to explain this to the child, if the parent has determined that this explanation would be helpful to the child."
Don't ignore it – but talk more than punish. If parents don't say a word, kids may think they don't mind or don't care, says my 14-year-old. "At home, it should be less about punishment in the form of, 'You have to do this, this, and this.' It should be more about talking about it."
Don't take sides – your family vs. the teacher. "Underscore the continuity of values from school to home," says Hindy. "Your child might try to split you and the teacher, to draw you in as an ally against the teacher, to argue that the teacher was wrong – and that he or she is the victim of unfairness." You want your child to learn from the experience and move on, says Hindy. "What if your child pushes and pushes that you need to run to his or her defense and intervene at school? First, I would try to guide the child toward talking with the teacher about it directly. Discuss ways to approach it that are respectful of the teacher."
Consider the number of offenses. "Presuming this is the first instance of cheating, or at least the first time caught, I would stress the importance of this as a teaching and learning opportunity around values in general and cheating most specifically," says Hindy. "I would not have another punishment at home this first time – but nor would I run to my child's defense at school."
Discuss honesty. "Nothing can be as important as trust – being able to rely on the words and deeds of others," says Hindy. "Cheating is an assault on trust and no small matter. You need to trust, and you need to be trusted. Trust and trustworthiness go hand-in-hand. Violating the honor code hurts all of us. You tell me what your life would be like if you couldn't trust your family, your friends, your teachers and classmates, and all the people on whom you rely.
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