In highly competitive environments, not unlike the environment of Singapore American School, recent research has shown that the children in affluent families today are more distressed than other youth. The children of affluent parents expect to excel at school and in multiple extracurriculars and also in their social lives. They feel a sense of pressure that plays out in extreme behaviors and excessive substance use and abuse. It can also result in anxiety and depression, cheating, drug abuse, and stealing. This research concludes that privileged youths are much more vulnerable today than in previous generations.
The pressure to do well in school and get into a prestigious college is shared by teens in many schools and countries, and SAS students are not immune. Singapore American School is distinguished by a rich academic curricula, high standardized test scores, and diverse extracurricular opportunities. Students here strive for a level of success that is especially high. Striving to reach a 2300 on the SAT and hoping to work through seven AP courses during their high school career can lead to one of the most common types of rule-breaking by affluent kids as identified by Suniya S. Luthar Ph.D: cheating. In her article “The Problem with Rich Kids” in Psychology Today, she suggested that the need to cheat and succeed is especially “imperative for the well-off, for whom expectations are especially high. Adolescents of affluence want to meet the standard of living they are used to.”
Surprisingly, several students who have cheated at SAS were open to discussing what they did and why. They also share the same concerns about the issues revealed in the article published in Psychology Today. When asked why they cheat, two alluded to the fact that they “need to succeed” in order to “stay competitive.” One student said that in a learning environment like SAS, you are constantly surrounded by extremely gifted people who make you pale in comparison. In order to prevent yourself from feeling insignificant, you can cheat to make yourself seem smart to others.
Another student called his cheating habit an “unhealthy desire” because he is trying to achieve the best grades possible in school and on the SAT, which he believes will get him into college and determine the rest of his life. He added that “when I cheat, I cheat to try and do well, or sometimes just to level the playing field.”
While some can pinpoint why they cheat – whether it is to stay competitive or to make up for the steep curves on exams – others label their cheating a “spur-of-the-moment decision.” One student said he personally avoids cheating on large tests or assessments that have a big impact on in-class grades as “the risks of cheating on something major far outweigh the 1 or 2 percent benefits.”
Sometimes students blame their cheating habits on external factors, like pressure from parents to succeed, or to obtain the scores for their top colleges. One student who falls into this category said that his cheating is “more of a response to pressure that accumulates from all facets of life.” Cheating, he feels, is his attempt to be better than he can be on his own. Part of this is for his parents, who hold him to a high level of personal excellence, and in part it’s for himself, to earn the grades.
However, another student said cheating is not done for himself. “I cheat to get into a college in a world where everyone cheats,” he said.
Cheating also gives the cheater a sense of accomplishment. One cheater said he feels some benefits from cheating because “if you don’t have a large conscience, the cheating makes you feel smart and in some cases can boost your self-confidence.” He went on to say that he gets respect from his peers and he feels more at home at school when he is successful, even if it’s as a result of cheating.
Other disagree, and feel that the benefits of cheating are very small, which is why they don’t cheat often. The most obvious benefit, one said, is “grade improvement or better results, as changing an answer on a test can definitely improve scores and as a result improve grades.”
Why should we care about the cheating habits of kids today? Most importantly, because no child should feel the intense distress that comes stems from competition and affluence. Further, these youths are the ones who will hold positions of power in the next generation, and Dr. Luthar suggests in her article that these rule-breaking habits will “disproportionately shape [the] norms in education, politics, and business.”
The students who were interviewed all agree that as a whole, the guilt and disgrace of cheating far outweighs the benefits. After being interviewed, one cheater said, “These questions made me think a lot about cheating. It was interesting because I was trying to rationalize cheating, and then realized that it is overall a dumb decision.”