Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Cheating is not the problem

by Steve Johnson

Whenever a cheating scandal like the recent one at Saratoga High School surfaces, I'm besieged with the question: What should we do to stop cheating? Because I train teachers in character education, people assume I'll have an answer.

Well, I do: Wrong Question. Cheating is not the problem but the symptom of a larger failure in the way we are raising our children.

Of course it's a cliché for adults to bemoan the decline of morality in the next generation. That could be because the loss of memory is a gift of middle age, but it could also be because children today are raised differently.

For one thing, they spend more time with mass media than has ever been true in history. A Kaiser Family Foundation study in 1999 found that American children spend an average of more than 38 hours a week consuming media outside of school. As Foundation President Drew Altman pointed out, that's almost the equivalent of a full-time job.

Children also are often disengaged from parents and other adults. In a 2002 survey by the Search Institute, only 58 percent of the adults and 55 percent of the youth polled said that the grown-ups they knew were involved with teenagers in teaching shared values. Only 25 percent of the kids reported that adults talked with them about their personal values.

So where are our children's values coming from? Denied interaction about values with adults, one place children tend to turn is to each other. Should we be surprised when, faced with an opportunity to cheat, children follow the values of their own age rather than of the wider world. What would happen if we all had the morality of nine-year-olds? (Then again, perhaps the recent crises in business ethics suggest that too many adults do.)

Another source of values for children are stories. What value messages are they getting from the stories they see on TV or in the movies and video games in which they are immersed? Especially critical, what kind of characters are being held up as heroes? "Terminator," the killer robot played by our governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the most popular character among the world's children, according to a UNESCO study conducted in 1998.

Finally, children arrive at their values by learning what pays off. Today, adults seem reluctant to let their children learn from the consequences of their actions. More and more often, parents seek to protect their children from schools when conflicts arise, rather than joining with these institutions in insisting that kids accept the consequences of misbehavior.

Not letting children learn from little mistakes sets them up for much bigger and often very serious mistakes as they grow. This is often easy to trace in incidences of cheating. The behavior pattern may start when a child gets his or her own way too often, doesn't have to complete things because they're too hard, learns that it's okay to take the easy way out.

That's why I say the real question is not how to stop cheating but how to help our children develop good character so that they will be people of integrity, people who have learned to do things that are easy and things that are hard, things they want to do and things they don't want to do, things they're the best at and things they're not good at.

When we hear stories about kids making poor choices, our next step shouldn't be to blame or wring our hands but to ask ourselves what we've done, what we're doing, and what we're going to do to change these behaviors. My suggestion: Turn off the TV and spend some time with your kids.

February 2004

A shorter version of this article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Friday, February 6, 2004.

Steve Johnson, is the director of character education at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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