There is a cheating crisis in our schools that isn’t isolated to those students who struggle with academics, rather it spans across the performance spectrum, reaching the very brightest in our classrooms. Top students feel the pressure to keep their place in line, and even those whose moral compasses do not accept the idea of cheating to get ahead often feel the pressure to take shortcuts in order to get ahead. As one high school junior recently said to me, “It’s not like I felt good about it [cheating]. It’s really hard to resist when my parents are so proud of me bringing good grades home.”
Parents often talk to their children about the importance of living a life of honesty and best effort, expecting that their children will build their accomplishments on a foundation of integrity. If asked, most of us would agree that cheating does not advance a person over the long haul, and yet national headlines continue to remind us that it has reached epidemic proportions in our schools, businesses, and government.
So, what lies at the root of this contradiction—that we say integrity is important, that we know cheating is wrong, and yet most of us understand and have at some time yielded to the desire to take a chance and peek at a classmate’s test answers, use someone else’s words in a report, or fudge the numbers in order to get the grade?
We live in a results-driven culture, where what you can do, accomplish, achieve has become more important than the person you are. In that kind of culture there is little room for character. Getting an “A” in math class is far more important than the amount of effort you invest or the attitude you have about that investment of effort. The drive to achieve is a powerful force and what we are sometimes willing to sacrifice in order to get to the top will ultimately pull us down.
There is also a prevalent mindset reinforced that says if kids feel good about themselves, they will do great things. Just the opposite is true. Authentic self-esteem comes from hard, honest work, pulling through the challenges we experience along the way, and knowing we reached the finish line having given it our best effort. The journey to gain the kind of self-confidence that can stand up to the culture of cheating requires us to endure difficulties and overcome obstacles along the way, get back up on our feet, dust ourselves off, and try again.
Often, with the best of intentions, adults step in when they sense or see a child is struggling rather than step back and allow important learning and self-discovery to take place—knowing themselves that the most important lessons in their own lives have come through facing and overcoming obstacles. Inevitably we all have to face difficulties in our lives. A far greater lesson can be learned when successes and failures and the character strengths and fears we feel experiencing them are shared with our families, friends, and peers; that is how we truly inspire others.
I often remind my students and their parents that what we as adults pay attention to is what we reinforce in children’s lives. If we are to counter this culture of achievement in which what one does is more important than who one is, we can begin by directing our highest praise toward those things we all can control—attitude, effort, and character.