Cheating: why do children do it?

Children cheat for several reasons. Some feel they have to meet high expectations – their own or those of others – and they can’t do this without cheating.

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 the difficulty level of schoolwork or a sport increases.

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 pressured to win or succeed, or if cheating becomes a pattern as they get older, you might need to get involved.

Before children cheat, they must first be able to understand the concept of rules, and the difference between right and wrong. Younger children might break or change rules as they play, but this isn’t really cheating. School children usually understand rules, so 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. Try to avoid telling your child that she is a ‘cheat’ – it’s a label that might stick.

  • Try to find out why your child cheated. 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 isn’t everything, and that you’re proud of his effort – whether he succeeds or not.
  • Reward the effort rather than the result. Praise your child for finishing the task. 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 sporting behaviour and the team effort, rather than who won or lost.
  • Be a role model for your child. If he sees you cheating, he might get the idea that it’s OK. Your reactions when you catch him cheating are also important. Take the time to calmly explain to him why it’s not OK to cheat.
  • Provide opportunities to practise. Play games together as a family so your child can learn about winning and losing.
  • 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 sports games might encourage cheating.
  • Try a range of activities. If your child isn’t good at one thing, this will give her the chance to find other things she can do well at, and develop other skills. This will help her self-esteem.

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 next time she plays with them.
  • 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.