My son, who is almost 4, recently became very big on board games. He's made his way through all the classics like Clue Jr., Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land, over and over again.
But pretty quickly, after learning to play each game, he's also figured out how to try to change the rules, or cheat, so he wins. He stacks the Candy Land deck, so all the candy cards are on top and tries to count wrong to move his piece and avoid a chute.
When we don't let him cheat, he sometimes gets very upset. This leads me to a question many parents have: should you let your kids win — or even cheat?
It all depends on the age and development of your child and what kind of game you're playing, says Ashley Merryman, co-author of "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing" and "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children."
"I think that kids under the age of 7 literally have not necessarily developed the part of the brain that helps them with perspective, taking and being able to understand how someone else is feeling," she says. "They think that everybody feels the same way they do, except for maybe parents, because they kind of think parents must be magical."
For younger kids, with games that require skill, she suggests altering the rules to give them a chance to win — but not letting them cheat.
"Your goal is not to set kids up for failure, right?" she says. "We don't have to stage things for kids to win, and we don't have to stage things for kids to fail. What they have to do is actually do something and feel that they have control over the outcome."
For example, giving younger kids two points for every older kid's one point, she says, or giving a kid two turns for every one turn of yours. And, she says, games of chance like Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders are actually great because everyone has a chance to play.
"The optimum thing is feeling that they have a chance to succeed," she says.
But when playing games, kids will inevitably begin to want to change the rules, and Merryman says that's OK.
"Creativity researchers ... say that's actually creative problem solving, to come up with new directions," she says. "And so kind of letting them play along with that is interesting. But maybe rather than having them moving the goalposts during a game, changing the rules on the spot, what I could do is say, 'OK, so why don't we set up the rules this way this time, and we don't have to play by the same rules we did last time. We can do different ones next time, but what are the rules for today?'"
Games and sports with set rules are good for kids' development and give them a feeling of control, says Sara Dimerman, a psychologist and author of five self-help books.
"As parents, we spend so much time setting rules, making sure that they are followed and making sure that routine is adhered to," she says. "So, it's a welcome change, both for parents and their children, when both can enjoy one another's company in an activity that encourages you to be social equals."
She says games and sports also present opportunities for setting good examples.
Letting kids win over and over, it's just not good for them, it starts to create an inflated sense of ego and reliance on external motivation starts to develop.Matt Albert, author and executive director at the Center for Reflective Communities
"It's also an opportunity for you to model appropriate play and responses to not always coming first or doing as well as you've done before," she says.
Dimerman prefers cooperative games that encourage working together, "Meaning that everyone has to work together to reach a goal," or "games that are based on chance or luck, rather than skill," she says. "The obvious reason for this is because most children, until they are much older or have played long enough to have mastered the game, cannot compete with an adult's level of knowledge or skill. So, playing a game that requires strategic thought and planning puts children at a very unfair disadvantage. The only way in which you may balance the situation is by having one adult and child on each side or an older child or adolescent, who is more competent and mature, to team up with the younger child against you on the other side."
And, she says, don't always let your kids win and don't let them cheat.
"Doing so gives a child a false sense of always being able to win and doesn't prepare [them] for when he is playing a game with another child or less concerned adult," she says. "If you're playing a game with your child and see [them] cheat, I encourage you to call your child out on it and to let [them] know that if you see that again, you will stop the game. However, if there are other people playing too, or if you observe [them] cheating with a friend, I would let it go. Then, later on, I would approach [them] in private to talk about what you saw and to talk about what cheating leads to in relationships, such as distrust."
Of course, making sure kids don't always win and not letting them cheat may lead to tears, or fits, about losing. To handle that, Dimerman says, use your usual parental coping skills.
"I encourage parents to acknowledge and validate their child's feelings with something like, 'I know it's upsetting and frustrating to lose a game, it's normal to feel that way,'" she says. "I discourage parents from saying things like, 'Don't be such a sore loser, there will be plenty more opportunities for winning' or 'Aw, don't feel bad, let's go get some ice cream to make you feel better.' Allowing your child to experience [their] emotions, acknowledging them as valid, but not giving them too much attention, is the best approach. Also, make sure to model appropriate responses to not coming first or winning all the time. So, if they hear you saying things such as 'Well, I may not have won, but I sure had fun,' after you've played a game together, [they] will learn from your good example."
In addition to board games, sports are an excellent way for kids to learn about winning and losing and developing a new skill, says Matt Albert, the author of "An Educated Guess" and executive director at the Center for Reflective Communities, an organization geared toward providing parents opportunities for reflection that increase attachment with their children.
He also coaches his son's baseball team and helps kids handle the strikeouts and mistakes that are inevitably part of the game.
"There are a lot of strikeouts, that's part of baseball, and some kids crumble the times they don't succeed," he says. "Sports are the perfect microcosm for this kind of learning. In general, in baseball, if you fail seven out of 10 times, you go to the Hall of Fame. If you bat 300, you're one of the best players, but that's a lot of failure. Sometimes the other person gets the best of you; that's going to happen."
In sports, Albert still encourages parents to work with a child, so they feel encouraged and like there's a shot to win.
For example, if you're playing racing with a 5-year-old, he says you can slow down a little, so they have a chance to win, but don't slow down so much that they win.
"Letting kids win over and over, it's just not good for them, it starts to create an inflated sense of ego and reliance on external motivation starts to develop," he says. "A 5-year-old knows you're faster than them, so if you slow down and let them win, they know they didn't really win. So run slower, so you don't beat them badly; you don't want to demoralize over and over, and then maybe trip once to show them they can win sometimes."
For older kids, say a 13-year-old, Albert says they may be beating you at many games on their own. But if a kid still isn't succeeding, "turn it right back on them, ask, 'What can you do better, what went wrong, how hard did you prepare, who did you ask for help?'"
Even if a kid fails every time at a sport or a game, there are always opportunities for victories and small improvements to make, Albert says.
"And when you have little successes, celebrate those successes," he says. "There are some kids who start the season who strikeout every time, and by the end of the season, even if they still strike out but get a foul tip, that's great, you can say, 'Look at where you started and look where you are now.'"
Albert also says caregivers should never let kids cheat.
"All kids do a little cheating and lying, they push boundaries, that's totally normal, but I tell parents to turn it back to the child and say, 'What kind of person do you want to be?'" he says. "If you're winning by cheating, they know they didn't really win."
Also, make sure there are bigger lessons about losing, so it doesn't become something so scary to a child so they'd want to cheat.
"Every bump in the road is a chance to figure out what went wrong and how to correct it," he says. "None of this is easy, it's hard to watch your child be upset, but a quick fix in the short term could have long-term effects on the child."