Are Our Kids Cheating Their Way to the Top?

Please welcome another DAD FILES post, by High Country Dad Richard Tidyman.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about some contradictions. Here’s one. We want our kids to be successful. So towards that end, we tell our kids to work hard, and get good grades. Higher grades will be rewarded, we say. That may or may not be true but it sounds good when trying to motivate our children. There ARE rewards however at the high school level. There is prestige and potential scholarships at stake for those with high GPAs.

SchoolLet’s step back though. We want our kids to be successful and excel in school and in life. Let us not forget that we teach by example, and they are watching us ever so closely. They observe and record all the little hypocrisies in our lives – all the “white lies” we tell. In addition, we even enlist them to lie for us and maybe even ways in which we steal. Phone rings… “Tell him I’m in the shower and can’t talk right now.” What parent, especially one who is on a budget, hasn’t been tempted to benefit from another’s mistake? Example: The cashier accidentally gives you too much change. This is a moment for some quick rationalization, all of which is observed and recorded by the child at your side.

Frankly, we are pretty good at rationalizing to our children why we don’t really have to play by the rules. We don’t drive the speed limit because no one else does…and they don’t seem to get caught. We see non-handicapped people parking in handicapped spaces. If they do it, why can’t I? And while it may seem minor at the time, we sometimes lie, cheat or steal and tell our children it doesn’t matter because no one got hurt (other than a mega-multi-billion dollar company and they won’t miss it, and it was someone else’s fault anyway).

So welcome to the perfect storm of encouraging our children to succeed in school even as they witness the positive benefits of lying, cheating and stealing. Considering what kids see at home, added to what is seen in the movies, it comes as no surprise many kids in school cheat. I’m assuming they cheat on all levels, from those struggling at the bottom, to those competing for top honors. And what are the excuses given? “No one is getting hurt. Everyone else is doing it. I have to get a good grade if I’m going to get into college. If I don’t pass (or a B, my parents will ground me.”

So who does cheating hurt? The fact is people do get hurt. Whether or not the cheater gets caught, developing a habit of getting something dishonestly cannot bode well for the future. It might even prove to be addictive and qualify for a 12 step group.

How do we instill integrity into our kids? Growing up, I had religion to instill in me fear and guilt for cheating and stealing.  But what happens when faith in a higher power holds no power (teens do question their faith still, don’t they? Or was that a ‘60’s thing?)

I wish I had been instructed in the fundamentals of true happiness and psychological well being. I wasn’t told that by cheating, or stealing, I was depriving myself of the most basic foundation of personal satisfaction. I wish I knew then what I know now, i.e., my sense of personal self esteem depends on perceiving myself as similar to my ideal self…trustworthy, capable, respectable, loved for who I really am or as Pinocchio says “a real boy”. By cheating, I am robbing myself of that pillar of emotional well being and peace of mind.

How do you define peace of mind? Brian Tracy calls it freedom from fear, freedom from guilt and freedom from anger. It seems to me a safe assumption that people who lie, steal or cheat fear getting caught, but even if the likelihood of getting caught doesn’t exist, guilt alone deprives one of complete happiness. We hurt ourselves in ways we may not realize. Our acceptance of these behaviors in ourselves warps our perception of others, either assuming others are like us, and not to be trusted, or just easy marks. Either way, it does not make for healthy relationships. In fact, it seems to me that cliques are partially formed by levels of integrity. Cheaters must hang with cheaters. Kids with integrity hang with other kids with integrity. Thugs hang with thugs. It makes perfect sense that it should be that way.

Maybe we need to spend less time telling our kids to get good grades and more time instilling in them an understanding of personal satisfaction, based on honesty and treating others fairly. Maybe we should spend more time saying work hard, work smart and maybe you will win the prize…but win it honestly. Someday, when they are successful, we can all sleep well and look at ourselves in the mirror without fear or guilt. And if liars and thieves should win the prize, as they sometimes do, we, and our children, can still hold our heads high and be proud of the honest effort. What greater success is there?


  1. But what happens when faith in a higher power holds no power (teens do question their faith still, don’t they?

    Why should it be any less difficult for a growing child to disregard secular humanist ‘personal integrity’ than to doubt faith? Seems to me it is far more logical to accept a moral premise if there is some authority in existence, rather than rely on making the individual the deciding factor. Just because cheating gives one person a wounded sense of nobility does not mean another person will. And if it doesn’t bother this other person in any way to cheat, the argument that he should avoid it because it someday might falls flat.

    Our children are a blend of the morals we teach them, the morals we exemplify, and the morals of the peer groups they join. And they might someday throw all of that out and go their own way for a while. I hope that these three sources, whether secular or religious in nature, brings them back to the right path.

  2. Something to think about today. Thanks