Should you let your kids cheat?

Nov 5, 2009 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Board games are a great way to teach certain skills to kids, including strategy and fair gamesmanship -- but I'm not really a fan. My boys seem to like the games that can stretch out for hours. Great for them, not so much for me -- or for getting dinner together or the laundry done. As far as my daughter goes, a mom can take only so many rounds of Chutes and Ladders and Candyland -- and I have a decade of regular playing under my belt.

Mother playing checkers with children

I also think my less-than-thrilled response to board games has to do with a phase each of my kids have gone through: The trying-to-bend-and-stretch-the-rules-to-win phase. My daughter has entered it, and my younger son still hasn't left it. Even though I know it's a phase and a great opportunity to teach about competitiveness, playing fair, rules, cheating and all that, I struggle with their urges to cheat. Constantly having to call the kids on their board game rule bending is just plain no fun.

A common phase

As kids learn to play games, whether outdoor, board or even card games, testing the rules is normal. Wanting to win is only natural, and allowing some flexibility early on can be just fine; you can even make little jokes about it, I think. What's the point of being unbending and rigid with a 3- or 4-year-old over something that is supposed to be fun? But as kids get older, they need to learn that the rules of the various games are there for a reason: So that the game is fair to all, including them.

But the concept of fairness can be difficult for a small child to grasp. Children are egocentric. They don't see much beyond their own little worlds, their own little points of view, as much as we try to show them. A full understanding of fairness goes hand in hand with developing empathy. When kids develop the ability to sympathize with the feelings of others, "fair" gets easier to grasp.

When do you draw the line?

The right time to get stricter with board game rules is hard to discern. Because we don't quite know when that switch is going to be flipped -- when that understanding will begin -- it's a progression.

At some point, the giggling at the rule stretching stops, and you start to reiterate the rules and why they are there. If your child is particularly resistant -- as one of mine (ahem) has been -- you may even need to stop playing board games (altogether or mid-point in a game) until she can agree to follow the rules. It may seem harsh, but sometimes it's necessary. And this is where we are with our 5-year-old. She's ready for the tighter rules, even if she is resistant to them.

Board games are meant to be fun, and they can teach lots of skills that can apply to the rest of life. One of those is appropriate rule-following. Even as you are having fun rolling dice, moving game pieces or drawing cards, you can send a consistent message about right and wrong, fair and unfair.

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