Intentionally breaking the rules or achieving personal gain through fraud or deceit.
Cheating is defined as the intentional act of breaking the rules, or attempting to achieve personal gain through fraud or deceit. With children, cheating usually refers to academic fraud, such as copying answers from another student while taking an exam, or breaking the rules in a game.
Cheating as a concept is not understood by children until around age seven. Preschoolers often change the rules to a game as they play, innocent of the fact that rules must remain consistent to have any meaning. By seven, however, children have gained an understanding of rules, fairness, and honesty, and cheating then becomes intentional.
Children may cheat for a number of reasons. Some never develop a sense of guilt, so they have no internal inhibitors to breaking rules. If they will gain something by breaking a rule, they break it without a qualm. Others experience a thrill in breaking rules, finding it exhilarating to oppose authority. "Getting away with it" gives them a sense of superiority and power over the rule makers and enforcers. Children who lack sufficient challenges in their lives may cheat out of boredom, in effect creating a challenge for themselves.
Many children cheat because they feel compelled to measure up to a standard that they do not believe they can reach honestly. Older children and teens are dependent on peer approval and dread exposing themselves as "stupid" or "slow." They will risk the consequences of being caught cheating rather than be humiliated by a poor performance. Parents may put pressure on their children to succeed in school, creating expectations beyond their children's abilities. To avoid disappointing their parents, or to avoid punishment, students will cheat to make good grades. Even those children with a well-developed sense of honesty will sometimes choose to cheat rather than fail.
The tendency to cheat is inversely related to the expectation of success. If a person has experienced repeated successes in a certain area, she will be much less likely to consider cheating in that area than one who has experienced repeated failures. Some early studies of cheating appeared to show that cheating was related to intelligence, with "less intelligent" students cheating at a much higher rate than "more intelligent" students. However, the tests used in these early studies were academically oriented, an area in which the better students had experienced repeated success while the poorer students had experienced failures. Therefore, the poorer students were more likely to consider cheating when faced with the academic tests. New studies have been conducted using nonacademic tests with which academically oriented students are unfamiliar. In these studies, "smart" students were at least as likely, if not more likely, to cheat when given the opportunity. In fact, when tests were given that were geared to areas in which poorer academic students had experienced greater success than academically oriented
Studies have also discovered a class (socioeconomic) difference in attitudes toward cheating. Middle- and upper-class children who have been raised with academically oriented values view cheating as a much more serious issue than stealing. The theft of knowledge is considered a greater crime than the theft of money or material goods, for example. In contrast, lower- and working-class children who have grown up in a world that emphasizes material survival, and in which higher education is an unlikely privilege, view stealing as much more heinous than cheating. Therefore, class background must be taken into account when dealing with a child who is cheating.
When a child is caught cheating, adults should not focus primarily on the crime but rather on the cause(s) of it. Sometimes adult expectations are too high for the child's abilities, and the pressure to succeed is too great. If the child is surrounded by peers who are working at a more advanced level than the child can achieve, she may need more attention or a different peer group. Until the underlying causes are determined, no amount of discipline will stop the child from cheating.
Kurtines, William M., and Jacob L. Gewirtz. Moral Development: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.
Schulman, Michael, and Eva Mekler. Bringing Up a Moral Child: A New Approach for Teaching Your Child to Be Kind, Just, and Responsible. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Sears, William. The Discipline Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Better-Behaved Child —From Birth to Age 10, 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995.
—Dianne K. Daeg de Mott