SUMMARY: Parenting and education experts Laura and Malcolm Gauld offer a three-part series for “Back to School,” a positive approach, guidance and essential tips about common challenges awaiting students returning to middle school and high school. These include issues that face kids nationally, such as peer pressure, pressure to achieve, bullying, cheating, labeling, and others.

The Gauld’s approach empowers kids to take charge of their own lives and manage the challenges they bump up against in their daily lives. The Gaulds have led the way in character education for three decades as leaders of a network of public and private schools in Maine, Connecticut, Washington DC, and New York.

The Gaulds are also the authors of the parenting book, “The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have,” and the seminars that emerged from it.

Addressing the Pressure to Achieve, Cheating, and Self-Esteem

As kids prepare to return to school, their thoughts turn to new clothes, new backpacks, and the fun of seeing their friends again. But their thoughts may also turn to other things: the increasing pressure to achieve good grades in an educational culture that places test scores first as an evaluation of students’ ranking and ultimate success. In high school, that also includes standardized tests that may determine admittance at prestigious colleges.

As grades are the bottom line in determining a student’s future, many of
our kids are gripped by these powerful influences that can and do manifest themselves in potentially harmful ways. Research indicates that the short-term solutions kids often seek in order to cope frequently have a long-term negative impact on their self-esteem and lives.


A recent survey conducted by the Josephson Institute reported that cheating is on the rise among students in the U.S. According to the study targeted to students:

  • 64 percent cheated on a test in the past year (up from 60 percent in 2006)
  • 38 percent cheated two or more times (up from 35 percent in 2006)
  • 36 percent used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment (up from 33 percent in 2004)

“In short, many students are not learning,” says parenting expert and author Malcolm Gauld. “They are doing only what they need to do to make the grade, and setting themselves up for a tremendous pitfall.”

The cheating crisis in our schools is not confined to low-achieving or unmotivated students. Cheating is common among most types of students — boys, girls, athletes, smart kids, student leaders, even those with “strong religious beliefs.”

Why are so many students cheating?

“Our culture has become preoccupied with achievement,” Gauld explains. “Many students are pushed to succeed by parents and a grade-based system that starts naming winners at an early age. A ‘win at any cost’ philosophy takes over.”

Alyssa Thomas, a junior from Washington state:
“I felt a lot of pressure from my parents and at school. I wanted the grade, so they would be happy and pleased with me. I think not feeling good about myself was the reason why I cheated rather than the reverse, though doing it just continued the cycle of shame I was feeling.”

Robby Joyce, a senior from Massachusetts:
“I never worried about my grades or felt pressure to perform in school. The pressure I did create for myself was grounded in extra-curricular activities, wanting to participate and not jeopardize that. I put off my homework and plagiarized a lot to stay on the team. I got caught and was eventually kicked off the team anyway.”

“There are serious ramifications to ‘winning at any cost,’ including lack of self-esteem in students,” says parenting expert and author Laura Gauld. “Unfortunately, an environment that values only achievement can make it extremely easy for test scores and awards to lure good kids into a false sense of fulfillment.”

The Gaulds feel that the development of authentic self-esteem — and the greatest chance of true and meaningful success — rest on a foundation of principles and knowing you have done your best with honest efforts.

“Never kid a kid,” Malcolm says. “They will never misread our true expectations of them. They know we have created an educational system that values their aptitude more than their attitude, their ability more than their effort, and their talent more than their character. They are surrounded by signs that tell them that WHAT they can do is more important than WHO they are.”

This is not the genuine self-esteem that is earned from the learning process, which includes mistakes and some hardship, and it can leave kids feeling empty.

“Self-esteem—real, authentic self-esteem—is essential, and once earned, it can never be taken away,” says Malcolm. “Our children should graduate from schools with a healthy amount of it.”

For the Gaulds, a successful life is built on principles, and the principles are the same for everyone, whether they are “easy A” students, academically challenged, or struggling with prioritizing. Parents play a vital role in this, as their kids’ primary teachers.

The Gaulds offer some basic tips that have proven helpful to students and parents:

1. STUDENTS–DON’T CHEAT . Invest the effort; do the work; and don’t quit. Over time, you will be rewarded with a strong sense of accomplishment and fulfillment in getting through something tough. The experience of the journey of learning is the greatest investment you can make in your future success.

Share with your kids your experiences about work and learning and how integrity, courage, and the lessons you learned from struggling and even failure played a role in your life. Share a story about a challenge you faced in life, and how it taught you something valuable and permanent.

3. PARENTS–EMPHASIZE PRINCIPLES OVER RULES . If you focus on the larger message that adhering to principles, living a life of practicing them, will get you where you want to go, it will be obvious to you that copying and pasting from the Internet is not okay (a rule). Kids are inspired by principles, and how we can turn obstacles into opportunities.

4. PARENTS—FOCUS ON EFFORT & ATTITUDE . We often send the message that successful outcomes are more important than honest efforts, i.e., Did my child win the game or receive the grade. Let your kids know that it is all right to struggle — that it really is important to offer our very best, honest effort. It’s okay to praise kids for good grades, but the larger message lies in the journey–the effort and attitude–that carried them to their destination.

5. PARENTS—MODEL PRINCIPLES IN YOUR DAILY LIFE . We all know actions speak louder than words, yet do we practice that wisdom? Your kids are always watching you, especially when you think they aren’t. They’re not always listening, however. When your kids see and hear you LIVE a life of honest, hard work, they will get the message about its importance. When we live what we say is important, step back to allow our kids to struggle and solve problems with our support and guidance, we send the message that we believe in ourselves–our own parenting instincts–and their ability to be successful in life.

6. PARENTS—ASK FOR HELP . Model this simple yet often ignored tenet and you will empower your kids to do the same before things get out of hand.

Regardless of what they might say or do, children share a deep yearning to be inspired by their parents. Ironically, we will not inspire our children with our achievements. We best inspire them when we share our struggles, reach for our best, and model daily character.

Go to Part II