How much do you need to worry when you see children cheating at play?

It is easy to think that children of all ages play games with rules in the same way as older children and adults, but younger children play differently. The issue of children cheating is explained here with using the example of board games but you can use this information for any children's game with rules. 

Rules and Kids Play

When children enter school they have usually started to develop the skills needed to play games that have rules. This is because from about the age of five or six children become increasingly logical in their thinking which allows them to think about rules. “This is seen in the way they challenge their parents when discipline is inconsisten, such as when they say "Why do I have to do this? You didn't ask my brother to do it.",” Professor Fergus Hughes, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay explains. Through this new understanding children become able to play games with rules. Board games are a good example of a game with rules but it also includes sporting games and even pretend play with older children, where the children invent their own rules for the game. 

Dr Bellinson, clinical psychologist and author of Children's Use of Board Games in Psychotherapy says children behavior when playing games with rules follows both their stage of development and their moods. “When they are struggling to follow rules at school, they will struggle to follow the rules of board games. When they are anxious or angry or upset, they will toss out the rules - of life or of games - and demand special treatment. When they are feeling bad about themselves they need to be the winner or the leader and so on.”

Rules and Kids Under 8

As children develop their understanding of kids’ board games and the way they play changes. “Children younger than seven or eight can't really play games according to the rules any more than they can fully follow the rules of home or school” explains Dr Bellinson. “So children's earliest efforts may resemble imaginative play more than structured play (they pretend to eat the candy of Candyland, for instance) and they may not play any game all the way through to the end. This matches their behaviour at school where they can sit and listen for only short periods of time and require extra time to prepare for transitions between activities.”

Game Rules and Older Children

How children think about game rules changes as they become older. “By the time children reach nine or ten, they are more settled into the routines of school and home. They are also more able to follow the rules of games as well, most of the time. At this stage there are still children who are unable to lose and times for most children when they cannot bear losing. At these times, they will bend or break rules so that they can take the win they need for their self-esteem,” Dr Bellinson says.

“By adolescence, most children will play structured games according to the rules regardless of their feelings at the time,” Dr Bellinson explains. “They will use games much like adults do – as a background for spending times with friends and family. They carry on conversations during the game rather than about the game, with the game serving as a mutually enjoyed activity, as a reason for sitting together, much like a cup of tea might,” Dr Bellinson adds. Adolescents therefore play board games in an adult-like manner.

Why Kids Cheat During Board Game Play

Children emotionally need to feel successful more than they feel a need to good because they follow the game rules. This can sometimes lead children to cheat when playing kids’ board games.

Prof Hughes explains that children understand rules but they desperately want to win to show how accomplished they are. “Five and six year olds understand that the game has rules, but they are more concerned about winning than about following all the rules. They will often cheat because cheating will accomplish their personal goal, even though cheating makes the game less fun for others.

It is also more typical of five and six year olds than of older children to get angry when they lose, and to accuse others of being ‘mean’ to them, as well as to tease and boast when they win."

“Young children cannot follow rules, so they won't,” Dr Bellinson says. “What they do is not cheating really it's creative play. The kids’ board game is an opportunity for the pretend play that they usually enjoy rather than a set of rules they have to fit into. They will play house, school or battlefield with action figures or dress-up materials and they will play in the same way with board games.

In addition, children who are newly learning a kids’ board game will usually lose every round, if they play by the rules, since whoever is teaching them the game is a better player. (Luck may be involved as well, but strategies and life experience go a long way.) And young children often cannot bear to lose. Their lives are full of grown-ups and older children who know better, demand much and punish harshly. Their days are full of new skills they don't yet have (like reading or math) with a parent or teacher telling them they are wrong and correcting them. When they play pretend school, they want to be the teacher. When they play battlefield, they want to be the conquerer. When they play board games, they want to win.

‘Cheating’ at this stage is actually creating a situation that allows the child to win when they wouldn't otherwise be able to (or the child believes  they wouldn't be able to - since they can't think ahead strategically yet, they may feel they are losing even when they are not),” she adds.

What to Do When Kids Cheat?

So how concerned should you be if your child cheats when playing a game and what can you do when it happens?

Prof Hughes, Dr Bellinson and Prof Scarlett all agree that cheating in children is not a moral issue. There is no need to punish a child for cheating. “When cheating is seen in a five or six year old it is not a sign of a lifelong, dishonest personality,” says Prof Hughes.

Prof Hughes suggests “I think we should strive to recognize children's successes and praise them when they do something well, even if we think that activity has little real value. However, the response when rules are broken in a game is to stop the game and tell the child that the game has no meaning if anyone cheats. Then have a discussion of why that is the case. Tell the child that when he or she is ready to follow the rules, but not before the game can be played again.” Support is also needed when a school aged child loses. Prof Scarlett suggests parents decrease the impact of the loss with statements such as "I bet you are smart enough to win much of the time. No one is smart or lucky enough to win all the time." 

“Parents should be patient with their children's slowly developing ability to follow rules and experience loss but try to play by the rules themselves,” Dr Bellinson explains. “They should concentrate on how the child is playing - complimenting a child on a good move made fairly for example, rather than on whether the child is strictly following all the rules. They can help children learn to be better players, by pointing out moves children may not have noticed for instance. They should follow the child's lead in what games to play and how long to play them since many young children will not be interested in finishing games, because they cannot focus for long and because they may be worried about whether they will win or not.”

“Parents can teach rules and strategies by the way they play and they can demonstrate being good sports by the way they act when they lose,” Dr Bellinson says. “Think of a game involving athletic skill - tennis, maybe. A parent can teach the child how to hold a racquet and how to serve and hit the ball. First play will be simple volleys, without rules or keeping score. When the learner is ready to begin actual game-play, the teacher will be able to win every set (for the teacher not to win would be 'cheating,' and the child would recognize that easily). On the other hand, for the teacher to play full-out with all his or her skill would also be unfair. A good teacher will play gently, playing balls the learner has a chance of returning, but still really playing. In this way, the child learns both tennis skills and game-playing rules, and most adults can enjoy the play as well. Now apply this idea to games like Candyland or Uno, parents should play truly and fairly but gently, with short 'volleys' rather than full games, progressing to partial and then longer games, playing with more skill and better strategies as the child gets older, better, and more able to experience losing.”

With thanks to Dr Jill Bellinson, Ph.D, Professor Fergus P. Hughes, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and Professor W. George Scarlett, Tufts University, Massachusetts.