The last time my parents came to stay with us, my 4-year-old, Ben, wandered into the guest room and found a bunch of my father's change on the nightstand. A sucker for shiny, unattended coins, he pocketed them. When his grandfather discovered the money missing and began asking about it, my usually truthful preschooler began spinning a tale of mystery and intrigue that could rival the work of Michael Connelly.
"Maybe it fell into the garbage pail, Pop-Pop. See? The can is right next to the dresser."
"No, Ben, there's no money in the garbage."
"Um, maybe Nanny moved it."
"No, I asked her. She doesn't have it."
"Did you spend it and forget?"
"Ben, did you take the money?"
It took an hour or so of quiet reflection on our suspicions. Ben eventually got his piggy bank, delivered the contents to his grandfather, and apologized — both for taking the money and lying about it. I was pleased that we didn't have to pressure him. We told him that we don't take things that don't belong to us, and if he made a mistake and didn't know the money was Pop-Pop's, he could just return it and it would all be OK.
Child development experts will tell you that lying shows that a child is aware he has done something wrong. By trying to protect himself from his parents' disappointment and disapproval, he's showing that his conscience is working. The experts also stress that parents who overreact might actually push their child into a position of feeling he needs to lie again and again to protect himself. But Ben is only 4, and the ability to differentiate clearly between fantasy and reality doesn't set in until at least age 6. We figured he just made a mistake and felt guilty, so he made up a story to hide his misdeed, which he didn't even know was wrong until we pointed it out. We saw it as a good lesson about the importance of honesty.
Also new in our house is 7-year-old Jacob's fervor for cheating. His stolen looks around the side of the Battleship board, moving of checkers when I'm not looking, and peeking at the Scrabble letters before choosing them has finally driven me to refuse to play games with him unless he abides by the rules. While that may seem a harsh consequence to some, I was afraid of tacitly condoning the behavior by continuing to let him cheat just so that he could win. (OK, I admit that I'm pretty competitive myself, but I'm also a stickler for the rules).
Some may not agree with my method, but I tell myself I am planting the seeds for my sons' future behavior, even at these tender ages. Jacob is very competitive. Who's to say that if he's allowed to cheat at home he won't try to do it at school, either to get ahead in sports or to cut corners in the classroom? There seems to be a proliferation of websites like Schoolbytes.com, Schoolsucks.com and Cheater.com, where visitors can buy, and even download for free, essays, book reports and term papers. And WikiHow.com, an affiliate of WikiPedia.com, posts an article titled, How to Cheat Through Middle School. I have no doubt thatthese options will surely show up on Jacob's radar when he reaches the age when he might consider using them.
Disclaimers or no, plagiarism is illegal and cheating is wrong. But these glossy sites make it seem as if everyone is doing it and that they're merely providing a necessary service to students by helping them to reduce their workloads. Only one site's logo seems the most honest reflection of why I suspect many of its visitors are there: "Because I just don't care." To a generation of kids under the impression that any information found on the World Wide Web is factual, and that Internet searches constitute 'real' research, it is not a far leap for them to believe that such sites are offering valid assistance for students.
Of course, the world — and county — we live in is highly competitive, and cheating is probably a byproduct. In our culture, kids as young as grade school age are taught that competitiveness is the norm, and as parents, we tend to reward it right from the beginning. Children learn quickly that losing is bad, and this fuels a strong desire in them to do well in everything. On its own, there's nothing wrong with wanting to get ahead, but experts say that the values we demonstrate at home set the example for how our children will behave when an opportunity to cheat comes along. Many adults occasionally cheat, in situations as simple as not admitting to having received too much change at the supermarket, which is essentially a lie of omission. But such episodes send a message to our children that cheating when it's convenient, or when it doesn't seem to hurt anyone, is acceptable. Being aware of the examples we set empowers us as important role models for preventing dishonesty. It also builds the foundation from which our children will draw when they are faced with opportunities to lie or cheat. Keeping those newly forming consciences alive and well will help a lot.
So I'll continue to end our board games mid-stride if I have to, at the slightest showing of cheaters — even if it makes me the poopy parent on family game night. They may not appreciate it now, but if it helps my kids learn and live the valuable lesson of honesty, they will always come out winners.