The school where I work has a lovely ceremony each year when all students and teachers sign the Honor Code. Many teachers ask students to “pledge” their work, signifying that the work is their own. We teach students to cite their sources when they borrow the ideas of others. To sign a pledge that says—“I shall not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate others who do”—seems cut and dried. In reality, it is complex. Interpreting individual cases can be difficult. There are times when parents should help their children figure out what is the right thing to do in a given situation.
Your son may work with another student on homework. Teachers encourage students to help one another when they are having trouble figuring out how to answer a question. In most cases, this is fine. The difficult part is deciding how much working with a friend is OK, and at what point it is no longer your child’s work. There are some teachers who do not want students working together at all. These teachers feel that homework is the way to know which students have mastered the concepts. I would suggest that your son ask his teachers what their expectations are for homework. If there is confusion, he should err on the side of caution—he should do it alone.
Another difficult area is when your daughter is writing a research paper. Changing one or two words in a paragraph from one of her sources does not make the work hers. Even changing whole sentences and paragraphs is not enough. She must give proper credit to the person whose ideas she is sharing. This is extremely hard for students to understand, and if your daughter makes a mistake she could be accused of plagiarizing, even though she feels she wrote it herself. It is probably a good idea to help her decide whether an idea needs to be cited, especially on the first few papers she writes. It is always better to over-cite than to not give credit when you should!
There are times when students cheat and they know it. This usually stems from feeling desperate for one reason or another. Perhaps they are over-scheduled and simply did not have time to do an assignment. It is possible they do not know how to do the work and won’t ask for help (perhaps they’re embarrassed to ask). Maybe they are about to lose a privilege at home if their grades drop. For whatever reason, these cases are clearer and normally result in punishment. Even so, parents can help identify the reasons their child felt the need to cheat. It may be possible to adjust their schedule or arrange for tutoring support, if needed.
All parents want their children to grow up to be honorable. The school’s honor code and how it is implemented can be helpful in teaching what it means to have integrity. Children make mistakes. When they do, take time to figure out what happened. Were they working with another student on homework and thought it was okay? Did they use another person’s ideas feeling they came up with them on their own? Or, did they cheat out of desperation? For whatever reason, take advantage of the situation to help your child learn how to do it better the next time.
You may be interested in reading Honesty Is a Vital Part of Character for more on this important topic.