When children see that cheaters prosper, what hope is there for the future?

Seeing that Merdeka Day today has given us a long holiday weekend, I anticipate pulling out a few board games to play. But I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for cheaters.

Because I found some recently when I was playing King Of Tokyo with some children. It is a quick, dice-rolling game with more luck than strategy. At one particularly intense point in the game, I saw a boy roll a handful of dice, and then very casually turn one of them over to get a better result.

I called this out. The boy just as quickly turned the dice back over again and carried on as if nothing had happened. There was no sense of embarrassment or shame that he had been caught red-handed.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Kids cheat a lot – or at least they seem to in the US. According to a 2012 survey of secondary school students by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, 51% of students had cheated on a test in the past year, and 75% said they copied another student’s homework.

Why do children do this? Surely kids know that their parents want them to do well, but not at the expense of cheating?

Perhaps the difference between getting a good or bad grade is so vast that it’s worth trying something underhand to gain an advantage. After all, if the punishment meted out for getting a C is the same (or worse!) as copying an essay from the Internet, then why wouldn’t you do it?

It’s not only studies, of course. In Britain, the country that invented the phrase “it’s not cricket” to admonish unsportsmanlike behaviour, there is a concern that cheating is rising in children’s sports.

A 2013 survey in conjunction with the “Chance to Shine” campaign to promote sportsmanship discovered that three-quarters of children aged between eight and 16 believed that their teammates would cheat if they thought they would get away with it.

So parents tell their kids that “cheaters never prosper”, yet what kids see day-to-day doesn’t seem to support that fact at all. In fact, I think what children learn from observing their parents is that it’s only “wrong” if you get caught.

You already see it when kids play football. The most common one I see is when they pretend they’ve been tripped and then roll around claiming a foul. Unsurprisingly, this is also the most common form of cheating you see when you watch adults play football on TV. I can’t wait to see when kids in the local field start biting each other on the shoulder.

Closer to home, there’s the habit of breaking those pesky, inconvenient traffic laws. Can’t find a free parking space and not willing to fork out RM2? Nevermind, just
double park. Heavy traffic but the light is turning yellow? Speed up and then stop
in the yellow box.

Just the other day somebody reversed their car into mine and then drove away without stopping to talk to me. When he made his police report, he claimed that I had driven into his rear fender. Given that the dent in my car was above my wheel and I couldn’t even open the driver’s door, I’m not sure he ever had a case. But I guess he felt that it was his duty to try his best to get away with it, and if he didn’t, he would be in no worse position than he was.

If he had a child, I wonder how he would explain this behaviour. Perhaps he would have said, “It’s better to make a police report than to get into an argument in the middle of the road”. Or he may have said, “If the other guy didn’t stop his car where he did, I wouldn’t have reversed into him”. But I also think the child would have learned to read between the lines.

A 2014 study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education highlighted that although 96% of parents say that moral character in children is “very important, if not essential”, nearly two-thirds of students surveyed reported that both their parents and peers would rank achievement above caring for others. And 54% reported achievement as their parents’ top priority, 27% reported happiness and only 19% reported caring.

In other words, the children surveyed felt that, according to their parents, it was more important to be successful and happy than it was to care about others.

It all fits when you then read with another finding in the 2012 Josephson Institute study that 57% of American secondary school students agreed that “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating”.

True, these studies are results from American students, and perhaps Malaysians have different values. But I would also argue that when you see the push Malaysian parents give their children to succeed, when parents compare the academic results of their kids with pride (or shame) and when children queue up outside crowded tutorial centres, then perhaps there’s even more pressure in Malaysia to succeed, and to only count the cost later.

At some point, we need to realise that in the long run what we say is overshadowed by what we do. If we want a caring, sharing Malaysia in the future, then we need a caring and sharing Malaysia right now. Let the wishes for your children be your exemplar today. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things, in even something as trivial as a board game.

So for this Merdeka weekend, for those of you who say when we play, “it’s just a game”, I beg to disagree. It’s a chance to build a better Malaysia.

> Logic is the antithesis of emotion, but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.