It's rare these days to read a newspaper or watch the evening news without hearing about an athlete who used steroids, a team that spied on another team's training camp, or kids who cheated on a standardized test, sometimes with the aid of teachers trying desperately to meet their No Child Left Behind benchmarks.
According to one survey, 60 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on a test over the past year. We're swimming in a sea of cheating – so I decided recently that I'd better talk to my kids about it, before they get the idea that everyone in the world cheats and it's pointless to resist.
I had a fair amount of confidence going into the discussion, because I'd written a book about cheating. In my novel, a good kid gets sucked into a ring of high-tech cheaters in high school. I had already thought my way through the ethical questions. I knew that the commonplace arguments against cheating – You're only cheating yourself; it's not fair to everyone around you – have no power to dissuade anyone.
Instead, the simple argument I planned to use was that cheating is sleazy. Do you want to be a sleazy person? Do you want to be sneaky and dishonest, always looking for an unfair advantage or a slimy short cut? If that didn't seem to be working, I could tell them stories – true stories – about people who didn't get to go to the elite colleges that had accepted them, because they cheated and got caught.
To start us off, I asked what they thought about people who cheat. Alex, a fourth-grader, said it had made him "sort of sad" to learn that Jason Giambi had taken steroids. Giambi had impressed us both by hitting three home runs at Alex's first visit to Yankee Stadium; when I asked Alex why it had made him sad, he answered, "Because those home runs didn't really count."
I couldn't have asked for a better lead-in – that is, until Alex admitted that he sometimes exaggerated his injuries during soccer games in order to get a penalty kick.
"Please don't ever do that again," I said, jumping the gun a bit.
Helen, who's 13, said that cheating always creeps up on the cheater in the end. She was trying to help me out – but then she remembered actual cases she had witnessed, and added ruefully, "But it doesn't always creep up on them in the end." Also, she empathized with professional athletes who cheat. "There's so much pressure on them to get those home runs and touchdowns and goals. The fans demand it. It really must be hard for them."
She was talking about herself without even realizing it. There's a huge amount of pressure on high-achieving students to get excellent grades. The pressure comes from parents, from teachers, and from the kids themselves, with their keenly developed dread of failure. Even for a basically honest student, the temptation to check what the smart person at the next desk wrote for question No. 3 can be irresistible.
My wife chimed in at this point, saying that glancing over at someone else's test one time doesn't make you a persistent cheater – and many of the 60 percent in the survey probably fall into this category.
These complexities reminded me of a fact I had forgotten: I've cheated too, on occasion. On the golf course, as a teenager, whenever I hit the ball into the rough, if no one was nearby, I used to nudge the ball over to the edge of the fairway with my sneaker. And I still buy movie tickets at the kids' price for Helen, who's small for her age, though she hasn't qualified since 2006.
How do you deliver the anti-cheating lecture when you're not a spotless paragon yourself?
You tell the truth. I admitted these small lapses to my children, but I pointed out something else as well: There have been countless times when I could have cheated (on tests, on taxes) and chose not to. Sure, some of that has to do with the fear of getting caught. But more important, it has to do with self-respect.
I want my children to be admirable, much more than I want them to win at sports or get all A's. And I told them so.
You could argue that one-time lectures don't accomplish much, that what really counts is the example you set every day. That may be true, and I'll think twice about taking the under-12 discount for Helen in the future. But I also know that the few times my father took the trouble to say, "I don't want you doing that," it made a deep impression.
I hope I've done the same for my children.