Cheating: why do children do it?

Children cheat for several reasons.

Some children might have high expectations of themselves, or they might feel other people have high expectations of them. So they cheat to meet these expectations.

Some might want to win because they don’t know how to cope with the disappointment of losing. After all, learning to lose takes time.

Also, children might cheat when they find a task too hard. They might be trying to keep up as schoolwork or sport gets harder.

Cheating every now and then is usually harmless. And it isn’t too much of a concern in the early years when children are still learning right from wrong. But if children cheat because they feel pressure to win, or if cheating becomes a pattern as they get older, you might need to get involved.

Younger children might not yet understand the concept of rules or the difference between right and wrong. They might break or change rules as they play, but this isn’t really cheating. School-age children usually understand that breaking the rules is cheating. You can teach them about fair play.

What to do if your child is cheating: practical tips

The strategies below can help you send the message that cheating is not OK:

  • Ask your child why he felt the need to cheat. His answer can guide your response. For example, if he cheated because he wanted to please you, this gives you the chance to let him know that winning is less important than trying his best.
  • Give your child chances to practise. For example, you could play games as a family so your child can learn about winning and losing.
  • Praise your child’s effort. With schoolwork, you can let your child know that what she learns and how hard she tries are more important than getting the highest grades. After sport or a game, you can focus on being a good sport and having fun, rather than who won or lost.
  • Be a role model for your child. For example, if you’re playing games or sport as a family and you lose, you can show your child how to be a good sport. You could say, ‘Thanks – that was great fun! And I did my best’.
  • Check your expectations. Sometimes our expectations can be too high for a child’s abilities. Putting pressure on your child to achieve good marks or do well at sport might encourage cheating.
  • Try a range of activities. Trying something new gives your child the chance to find things he can do well at and develop new skills. This will help his self-esteem.
  • Use everyday conversations to remind your child about the importance of fair play. For example, if you’re watching sport on TV, you could talk about how it would be less fun to watch if the players were cheating.
  • Avoid telling your child that she’s a ‘cheat’. This might lead to even more cheating. That is, if your child believes she’s a cheat, she might as well as keep cheating.

Helping children understand the consequences of cheating

Helping your child understand the consequences of cheating can be a powerful way of changing cheating behaviour.

For example, you can talk with your child about what might happen when he cheats:

  • It might upset other children.
  • Other people might not trust your child the next time she plays with them.
  • It takes the fun out of a game.
  • Your child might never find out how well he can do without cheating.
  • Your child might ‘get caught’. How would she feel about that?
  • Cheating might stop your child from getting better at the game.
  • Your child might start to feel he can’t win or finish a task without cheating.

It’s important to be patient. Children might still break some rules while they’re learning. Use these ‘teachable moments’ to talk to them about cheating and why it’s not OK.

Getting help when children are cheating

If cheating continues to be a problem and your child is old enough to understand what she’s doing, you might want to talk with a school counsellor or a psychologist for more help.

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