An awareness that there are rules tends to emerge around age four. However, the ability to follow rules may not emerge in a typically developing child until age 6 or 7. We should expect children in therapy to cheat. It is useful to think of cheating in the same way we would think of any other activity in the play room. It is a creative act, and an attempt to deal with some internal struggle. Young children (6-7) often haven’t yet learned to follow rules or tolerate losing, and older children frequently lack the robust self-esteem and social skills to adequately follow the rules of structured games. Cheating also represents the transition from magical wish-fulfillment to realistic management of the environment and acceptance of limits on one’s power and control. Some children have not had the opportunity to develop a tolerance for losing due to excessive permissiveness at home. Other children, coming from a harsh and punitive environment, may avoid cheating out of fear and anxiety. A child or adolescent may “need” to win because they are in a struggle to maintain self-esteem or experience some level of control over their environment.
Some clinicians, such as Richard Gardner, believe cheating should be stopped immediately. Others allow cheating to unfold and watch to see what happens. Jill Bellison (Children’s Use of Board Games in Psychotherapy) discusses it with the child, but makes no attempt to intervene.
I do not think children have to be confronted or corrected about cheating. They already know it is wrong, or are in the process of learning that it is wrong. However, I don’t think it is advisable to be silent about cheating either. I think it’s important that clients believe they are in the room with a competent adult, and not some dupe. However, some children need to cheat, to work out feelings of unfairness, being short changed, never getting their way, or for a sense of superiority. I may note how much fun a child is having “tricking” me, or how the new rules are going to work out very well for the child! The therapist should maintain a therapeutic attitude. That is, focus on the child, not on winning or losing. Pay attention to the child’s experience and reaction to the game, and avoid evaluative comments about your performance or the child’s performance.
As children progress through therapy the discussion about cheating may change. Children who have a significant degree of peer conflict in their life, or difficulty maintaining peer relationships, will need to think about how their approach to game play affects their relationships. I might ask them what would happen if I were with a peer. I may ask them if they can handle losing, or should we put the game away. In some cases I point out to the child that my job is to help them act their age, and if they can’t follow the rules we should find something else to do. This type of intervention shouldn’t be made until it is clear that the child trusts you and believes that you have only good intentions.
How a child cheats is important. Sometimes they are just testing the waters. Is this really a different kind of relationship? Is this really my time, where I get to decide what we’re going to do? Some children are overtly manipulative, others attempt to cheat covertly, others cheat only when frustrated, and some children cheat for the sheer delight in being oppositional. As we observe a child’s style of cheating we can begin to learn about their frustration tolerance, ability to delay gratification, problem solving ability, character development, and coping strategies. An indulged child may cheat overtly and without guilt, because they have a sense of entitlement. A needy child my initiate cheating immediately and often, avoiding any discomfort associated with losing, or not getting enough. Oppositional children may also cheat overtly, often with a sense of bravado, and almost no guilt, while guilt ridden children may cheat, confess, or even manipulate the game so the therapist can win.
Of course some children won’t cheat. This is often a reflection of maturity and adequate self-esteem. However, some children simply can’t cheat. A child who rigidly adheres to the rules, and insists on play only, avoiding any conversation or reflection, is saying a lot about may be going on with them. Placed in the context of that individual’s life, we can begin to learn how they manage stress, conflict, and strong emotion.
Related to cheating is the issue of allowing the child to win. As a representative of reality, and as an active participant in a child’s social and emotional development, this does not seem like a good idea. It might be more appropriate to stick to games of chance, where child and therapist have an equal chance of winning, thus providing the child with opportunities to develop some tolerance of losing. Alternatively, the therapist may choose to focus on cooperative and non-competitive games. Of course, some children will persist on a game until they actually do beat the therapist.