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Jonah probably thought he had it all figured out. The seven-year-old grade two student had tucked his spelling words under his desk and was consulting the list during a test, just to make sure he got everything right. Unfortunately, the teacher caught him cheating. “She told him she was really disappointed in him,” says his mom, Tracey Ratelle-Westdorp. “I think he did it to get her approval—if he got the words right, she would be happy with him.”
Ten-year-old Sam* has also been known to cheat, but for different reasons. “He’s been super competitive since he was little,” says his mom, Kathryn Ratner.* “When we’re playing games, he tries to fake the rules to benefit himself and he gets upset if I correct him. He has a hard time when his team is losing at baseball and insists the ball wasn’t foul, for example. When he’s playing tag with his friends, he’ll say he wasn’t tagged.”
It doesn’t feel good to witness or hear about your kid cheating—whether it’s on a test or in a board game or when playing tag at recess. But cheating is common in the elementary school years, says Jennifer Kolari, a family therapist in Toronto. “It’s a normal part of development,” she says.
Kids cheat to avoid the icky feelings that come with losing or doing badly at something, says Kolari. They’re also only thinking about themselves. “The whole idea of winning and losing is a concept kids have to grow into because they’re incredibly egocentric,” she says. Your kid can’t quite yet grasp that losing will feel just as bad for the other person. “They always think it’s worse for them.”
If you notice or get word of your kid bending the rules, it doesn’t mean they are malicious or immoral. Don’t freak out, says Kolari. Here’s what you can do instead.
It may sound counterintuitive, but consider giving your kid a chance to play the game to their advantage—for example, they get three turns for every one of yours, or they never have to go down the snakes in Snakes and Ladders, but you do. When they inevitably win, ask them how it felt and whether it was as fun as winning by the rules. The goal, Kolari says, is to help them realize that playing games they always win takes the fun out of it, leading to a pretty boring round of Guess Who or checkers. Afterwards, play the game again by the real rules and emphasize that this time there will be two winners—the one who won the game by the rules and the one who lost but did it without getting upset.
Your kid is trying to avoid the feeling of losing, or doing badly on a test, by cheating—but inevitably, another feeling will start bubbling up. “Guilt can feel pretty yucky,” says Kolari. If your kid cheats, ask if it felt as good as a true success, and help them pay attention to those guilty feelings and what they mean. “Explain that it’s like a guardrail on the road, and if you get that feeling, it’s your body telling you you’re off the road too much, and you’ve got to get back to the middle of the road and start following the rules again.”
“We live in a culture that definitely pushes competition,” says Kolari. No wonder your kid wants to come out on top! Be sure to tell them you value the effort they put into something or that they try their hardest or do the right thing. “When you tell them you’re proud of them for not taking that shot because their friend was in a better position and it helped the whole team, you’re helping them learn what matters,” says Kolari.
Ratner, who is a grade three teacher in addition to being Sam’s mom, says she doesn’t see much cheating in her class—probably because she doesn’t focus on grades or give her students many tests. But if your kids seem to be putting a lot of pressure on themselves to get things right at school, talk to the teachers about expectations and how you can help your kids reach them. Again, don’t get hung up on results but, rather, emphasize the process. “I explained to Jonah that it wouldn’t help him in the long run, as he wouldn’t actually be learning the words,” says Ratelle-Westdorp. Also, if your kid tries to pull a fast one on you, don’t assume they’re doing the same thing at school. “Kids are much more likely to follow the rules at school than they are at home,” says Kolari.
Ratner says she’s worked a lot with Sam over the years to help him understand that it’s OK to lose, but he still sometimes gets overwhelmed by the feeling. “I can’t change who he is. But after he gets upset, I talk to him about how it feels bad to lose but that winning by cheating doesn’t feel good either,” she says.
As for Jonah, “he still struggles with spelling,” says his mom, “but he hasn’t cheated again, as far as I know.”
*Names have been changed.