A Child's Eye View of Cheating

We were a motley crew, ages three to forty, playing a pick-up game of baseball on vacation. The six year old was pretty new to the game, but able to pick up on the rules, understand how to win, and realize how undeveloped his skills were. He was very pleased to be included and wanted to make a solid contribution to his team. We had to bend some rules by necessity, and the tone was a lighthearted one. Noticing the flexibility he got excited about the possibilities of cheating as his way of helping out. So, as first baseman, he once took advantage of a long at-bat to move the rock that was first base off deep into the bushes. Nobody could get to first base now! Then, as catcher, he started to sneak up and grab the bat from the batter's hand (with all of us cooperating by being obtusely unable to figure out what was going on), then delightedly stepping up to the plate himself and swinging three strikes to give the other team an out. It was an unorthodox game on all counts, and we all had a great time.

What if we thought about children's cheating at games not as an offense to righteousness, but as a way of playing with and helping to equalize power relationships? Especially in structured games with rules (card and board games, team sports) people who are older, more informed, more generally skilled and more experienced invariably have an edge. Of course our children would choose to play as peers, and cheating can be a very successful way of evening the odds.

If I can take away the moral judgment, and give up some of my control over, and attachment to, the way the game is supposed to be played, we can have a great time together this way. First, children get a gleam in their eye and start to cheat, more or less obviously, depending on their level of sophistication. They steal money from the bank (or bases from the playing field), move their player extra spaces, turn the dice, tackle the basketball player just as he is about to shoot, put down two or three cards at a time, etc., etc.. I let them know that I know the game they're really playing (who wants to perform tricks without an audience?), making a great show of outrage but finding myself unable to do anything about it. It's fine, and often fun, for me to cheat too, but I have to be less competent at it, or be caught by the child and required to play the game "right." In any case, my role is to protest loudly and helplessly, while they laugh and laugh--secure in the position of greater power. It's the deliciousness of the role reversal that's the whole fun of the game.

I don't think that by playing these games we need to worry about turning our children into cheaters. Some people may become compulsive cheaters, addicted to winning at any cost, but not through such play. Most children know when cheating makes a game fun, and when it just takes away all the structure that allows the game to work well. Even the three year olds, who delight in cheating with adults, will work out the rules of a game very carefully with each other. And as they gain information and experience, the challenge of playing by established rules will become more and more interesting.

What are our goals anyway? I want to raise children who know how to play by the rules, and are secure enough in themselves that they don't have to win every game. But I also want them to realize that the rules of the game are often made by people with more power--people who don't necessarily have our needs or best interests in mind. I want to raise children who are not afraid of challenging rules that never allow them to win.