Finding the Remedy for Fake Sick Days: When it comes to days off of school, can we trust our kids not to manipulate us?

Eric Rasmussen

Image: Shelly | CC BY 4.0
Image: Shelly | CC BY 4.0

We did it. Victory is at hand. When it comes to sick days, we’ve almost won. We haven’t beaten the viruses and bacteria that cause sick days, obviously. Those little buggers still have us running for the tissue boxes and sneezing into our elbow pits like some sort of mucus-soaked dabbing dance craze. No, our victory is over the faking of sick days. We’ve nearly crushed the scourge of kids pretending to be ill to stay home from school, and success smells sharp, like a healthy glob of VapoRub.

If they never learn that sick days mean extended couch-laying and round-the-clock pajamas, maybe they’ll never figure out that exaggerating symptoms yields consequence-free mini-vacations.

Kids used to manipulate their thermometers with lamps and other heat-producing appliances to indicate fevers they didn’t have. Now, digital thermometers aren’t so easily fooled. In the past they coughed and claimed sore throats, the only remedy for which was a day in bed. Now, our cabinets are stocked with an array of natural and pharmaceutical remedies for any ailment, and doctors are always available for online consultation. As little as 20 years ago, staying home meant rest and quiet and maybe a little Price is Right, even if Mom forbade TV on sick days. She has to shower sometime, right? These days, assignments are posted on the school’s Internet platform and teachers are only a quick email away. And what’s the point of staying home if you don’t even get a one-day extension on the homework?

No matter how much progress society has made in the war against fake sick days, my wife and I are still terrified that our kids (ages 7 and 9) will take up arms and start fighting the battle to stay home. So far, our only strategy has been one based in misinformation—if they never learn that sick days mean extended couch-laying and round-the-clock pajamas, maybe they’ll never figure out that exaggerating symptoms yields consequence-free mini-vacations. So, we send them to school when they’re sniffling and when their heads hurt. Sometimes it feels cruel, but education is important, right? And those kids from the 1950s, the ones who had to walk uphill both ways, they went to school no matter what, didn’t they? Whatever they had – mumps, leprosy, open fractures bleeding onto their math books – they toughed it out and survived. Our children can certainly do the same.

In the past few years, however, kids everywhere have discovered a new weapon, even though they are not totally aware of its power. This doomsday device? Epidemiology. We used to treat childhood disease like exercise: an unfortunate evil necessary to good health. It’s hard to imagine as we don surgical masks and douse ourselves in sanitizer, but chicken pox parties used to be a thing. At these bizarre rituals, parents would force their 6-year-olds to play spin-the-bottle with the kid covered in sores. Partygoers enjoyed soda, but only if they drank it from a communal cup. The soirees ended with a game called “Sneeze on Each Other.” I think. I never actually attended one of these parties.

Now, however, disease is something to be contained and avoided, making school a health-conscious community’s worst nightmare. Parents are told to keep their kids home if there’s any chance they’re contagious. Many schools and childcare facilities enforce strict rules regarding admittance of the afflicted. Kids must stay home if they threw up in last 24 hours or have a fever over 100.4 degrees. Those open fractures must be “dealt with” instead of “toughed out.” Wusses.

So, on a Tuesday, our daughter woke up with all the classic flu symptoms: fever, flushed cheeks, weakness. She said she felt dizzy. So of course we let her stay home from school, and I heroically volunteered to call in sick to work myself. We had a really nice day. We watched some cartoons, played some Nintendo, had lunch together. I made her take a nap. But then my wife got home.

“What did you do today?” she asked.

“We watched cartoons, played Nintendo, took a nap,” I replied.

“You WHAT?!? She’s supposed to be in bed all day if she stays home from school!”

“It’ll be fine.” I smiled, confident our adorable daughter would never seek to manipulate us.

But the next morning, when I went to wake her, she rolled over and said, “I don’t feel good. I don’t think I can go to school.” But she had no fever. He cheeks looked fine. Her voice revealed the energy she had been missing the day before, and a hint of a diabolic smile flashed across her face.

“I think you need to go to school,” I said.

“But I don’t want to get anyone else sick.”

She got to stay home that day, too. My wife didn’t allow her to play Nintendo, but by that point, it was too late. We had lost. The sanctity of sick days in our house had reached a crushing “Game Over.”