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Play Fair: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My seven-year-old has a playmate who often cheats or complains that others are cheating when they play. (We’re still sticking to outside play so they don’t have to mask up.) This friend will take back a “bad” move on the checker board, or when they play Pick Up Sticks he’ll say he didn’t move a stick when he did.

It’s gotten to the point where my son doesn’t want to play with him.

Can this be cured?

Where’s the Rule Book

Dear WtRB,

It is wonderful to see that children are back to playing with friends, however conflicts over rules and fairness are a normal part of play at this age.

Normal Social Development

When there isn’t a pandemic or other crisis going on, a child typically progresses from interest in other children, to wanting to do what another child is doing, and wanting what the other child has, to wanting the other child to play with him, to ultimately learning how to be an enjoyable playmate. Progress through these stages takes practice.

Cheating is Part of the Game

The games you mention do indeed give leeway for violating the rules. (I remember we allowed a checker player to change his move so long as his finger was still touching the checker piece.) Under the best of circumstances a rule violation becomes an opportunity to bring attention to the infraction, a chance to debate the interpretation of the rule, and perhaps an agreement to change the rule according to group consensus. This is how society works.

Because the children are motivated to win the game as well as to spend an enjoyable time together, they may agree to give each other some wiggle room to advance in the game. Of course it’s not fun if one player is consistently bending rules while the other is trying to stick to them.

Closer Supervision

Social skills are learned from experiences with other children. Considering that children have lost a couple years of in person social interactions, and that parents, teachers, and other caregivers have endured a lot of stress, their stages of attaining social skills may be delayed. A child’s ability to play nicely with others may need a little help. As we do with younger children, it makes sense for adults to hover within earshot, or even join in the play to model kindness and fairness and to prevent a squabble. With the advantage of your superior age you are better able to refer to the Rules of Play on the box and to help keep things civil between the players.

Take A Few Steps Back

Bearing in mind that the children’s social skills may be a bit behind, it might be a good idea to encourage the kind of play typically seen in children a bit younger. Offer dress ups, pretend pots and pans, sand and toy trucks, and other items for imaginative play. A climber or double swing set allow for more than one child to enjoy movement at the same time. (Meet up at the playground for even more glorious space for playing together.) If there are enough toys and enough room, the children can imitate each other rather than compete with each other.

Art activities are another non-competitive option for when the friends get together. The August heat is perfect for no-mess painting with water. Just get some paint brushes, any size, and a small tub or two of water, and direct the water painters to surfaces they can practice their strokes on that will dry in the heat of the sun.

If you stay away from games with rules, just for the time being, the friends can work on just enjoing each other’s company.    

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  

A special event in honor of National Aviation Day will be held this Friday, August 19, with outdoor activities from 1-4 pm. Learn about important people in the history of aviation and make some flying objects of your own!

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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