Should We Stop Children From Learning to Cheat?

(Photo: D Sharon Pruitt)

(Photo: D Sharon Pruitt)

A Freakonomics Radio listener named Sandra Elsen writes:

Today, I went to my son’s kindergarten.  He attends the local International School (what the Realtor described as the “Hippy-Dippy” school, lol), in a semi-rural area, just outside of the city in a middle-class town.

There, I was asked to help them learn a new game. The concept was simple:  a six-sided block had three 1’s and three 2’s marked on each side.  They had to trace the number that was rolled on their worksheet.  Roll, trace.  Once five of one number was achieved, either the firetruck or the firefighter (pictured at the bottom of the sheet) “won.”  The teacher indicated it was a “race” to see which picture would win.

Then I “helped” (okay, I mostly just watched them) to make sure they understood the game.  These kids rolled, and rolled, and rocked it.  I watched a tiny window into Game Theory open as group after group came to my station.  One group was completely content to work on the race as indicated and exclaimed in joy when either the firefighter or firetruck won, and started over again and again.  Then I noticed my next group was watching to see if I’d correct them if they got their numbers wrong — if I roll a 1 and trace the 2, will she notice? Will she call me out? Even another group came by with two competitive girls who only wanted to have one of their numbers win. Another child wanted to write numbers until they were all filled out, not caring about the random chance aspect. Depending on what the other kids at the table are doing, others watch and learn gaming from each other.

I have worked with these kids for an hour over the past few weeks, noticing that the same kids game the system each time.  Some couldn’t care less if they are called on cheating, others will be “corrected” right away and continue with the game as written after that.  

So. Dubner.  So. Levitt.  When do we get our kids to know right and wrong? How do they learn to “game” the system?  Will these cheaters always cheat?  Will this affect their long-term finances?  Is there a way to help “correct” and help these kids learn from this experience?  Or should I leave them to their own devices…

The comments section is wide open, and is all yours …


I think so much of this depends on what your end goal is for your children. Do we want kids who do well in life, no matter what it takes to get there? Then let them cheat! Do we value a moral code over measurable success? Then instilling that moral code can't happen too soon.


I don't even think this is 'gaming'
The game, as described by the rules, is pointless.
I think there's a basic human urge to 'poke' at systems purely for the (and here comes the unscientific term) 'for shits-'n'-giggles'. Inquisitive people poke things to see what happens. If you're placed in a pointless/banal system and you've realized that, then you can either pointlessly carry on, walk away, or just see if you can alter the rules to make it interesting - even if there's no directly visible reward.
Bluntly, strikes me as a good thing.


It's called "hacking".

One of the methods used in reverse engineering systems is called "fuzzing" where you provide spurious or invalid inputs to see how a system reacts or "kicks back". In some ways, this is what the scientific method does - you look at established laws and test them in different cases to see if they still hold.


I think this is boredom, not gaming of the system. Just like my 5 year old's handwriting would gradually get worse as she did her Kindergarten homework, I think these kids are just not intrigued by the game and just want to finish it and move onto something else. On the flipside, some kids love the game and get really crazy about it. You'd see the same dynamic if you brought a bunch of adults into some group activity. Some would naturally lead, some would be way too excited, some would sit back and let the others do the work, some would put their head down.

Simply put, some kids found it enjoyable, some found it too difficult, some found it too boring.


Interesting topic. I'm going to be very interested in following the responses.

My take, based on what I do with my daughter who is in 5K right now, would be to get them to follow the rules until completion of the task, then encourage them to experiment on their own.

In the case of the task mentioned here, I'd have my daughter do the task as instructed. Once completed, I'd tell her she could turn over the sheet of paper and do what she would like on the back. She does well with this method and comes up with some very clever experiments to do on her own.

I came up with this with the help of her 4K teachers but her 5K teacher at a different school uses a similar method. I think it works well for kids who are looking for something more because they are bored with a task that is possibly too easy for them. I'm not sure what a good method would be for those who don't follow the rules because the task is too challenging.

Of course, it also works well for children who, like my daughter, want to follow the instructions but need more challenging tasks after the initial task is completed.


El Conquistador

I have seen my kid and his classmates playing the same game in class. However, the die was a regular one and they traced 1-6 for a race. Each number had its own "prize" too. I did not notice any cheating but the teacher does a good job in changing both the pages and ordering of the games each day.
The game is pointless to us but for them it is much more pointless to just trace numbers without any incentive. The die provides a fun alternative to just saying "trace this 10 times".
I do wonder if the agent/teacher might not be the issue too - my son's teacher has a nice balance of authority and fun and they seem to follow the rules pretty well. I volunteer a few times per semester and I am really impressed with her.

Do you want to talk about competition, gaming, and cheating? Try to organize a soccer game during recess...

Marc Resnick

I think (even if this particular activity is not the best game in the world) the question in the post is really important. How much of cheating is nature, nurture, or genetic tendencies that are unlocked by environmental cues and experience? Since this was a kindergarten, the environmental/nurture factors probably happened at home. And probably not by any league of criminal conspirators but just simple shortcuts that the developing child picks up on. And since we all do this, the consistency of some of the students over others suggests that there is a genetic component as well.

Is there a way to get to them young and erase the cheating tendency before it takes hold? There are some immersive social games that require a lot of collaboration, consensus building, and sharing to win. I wonder if a variation of these could be developed that is appropriate for 4 year olds and that can only be won by suppressing the instinct to cheat. And not in a carrot and stick way, but more intrinsic and visceral.

If any of your readers thinks they can do it, I suggest Kickstarter to get going.


Very interesting questions! I don't think it is a moral question; it's as matter of designing incentives that signal when to cheat, or not. As we read in Freakonomics, some say that "if you aren't cheating, you're not trying." Cheating is often appropriate: In basketball, a coach will instruct players to intentionally foul near the end of tight games. It's breaking a rule, but it is not perceived as cheating. Many of us cheat a little on the speed limit. To me it is worth a periodic $200 ticket -- the price of driving a little faster. So it depends on the penalties of the situation. The penalties (dis-incentives) for cheating will clearly signal how seriously that the culture wants people not to cheat. If the risk of cheating is worth the price of the penalty, people will cheat.


I guess Susan has never worked with or studied primates in captivity or in the wild. This is nature at work, this was a highly likely outcome with or without adult influence. The same exact thing would happen if you were able to play this game with group of young greater apes. I'm not surprised at the outcome in the least, its evolution at work. If these human kids weren't trying to cheat they'd be at a disadvantage in any environment, both man-made and natural, for the rest of their short lives

Michael Hudec

Don't discourage gaming the system, but do discourage them from directly breaking the rules. Understanding game theory and how to work a particular system will take them far. Thinking outside of the box and learning to game the system extends into school, the workplace, and personal relationships. Would you want to marry a cheater or hire a thief? Do you want a creative problem solver on your team, or a spouse that understands what motivates you & how to make both sides of the relationship work? If you extend the same game theory to parenting, the right choices will become evident.

caleb b

I think the cheating kids are ready to open a pet crematory.


This is an interesting question - not because of the answers but because of its assumptions. The words "right" and "wrong" and "cheating" are definitely morally loaded words that need to be questioned. For example, is it considered "cheating" if you escape from a concentration camp? Is it considered "cheating" if you decide to break Jim Crow laws?

One problem I have about these game theory scenarios is that they give the impression of moral objectivity while still claiming to make statements about "right" and "wrong". It's obvious that there is no personal incentive (or moral framework) to follow the rules - just the idea that one ought to follow rules because that's the definition of a rule.

I would say that the "cheaters" who challenged the rules by disobeying them (why should we follow the rules in the first place?) seem to me in a better moral position than those who blindly follow rules just because they're rules.



Actualy without moral values there is no reason why you shoulnot kill and rob the people in the order to grow and get rich.every criminal acts canbe justfied.moral values and common sense is the pillar of the humanity.


I agree with earlier commenters who said this is experimenting with a boring game rather than cheating.

Even with clearer-cut cases of children's cheating, though, you have to be very careful with how you explain the rules and expectations in the first place. I recently saw a father teaching his 4-year-old a board game. The boy needed to roll a six to advance in the game, so the father said "Now you're trying to roll a six." The boy started deliberately tweaking his rolls to try to make the die land on six, and the father told him to stop cheating. But I don't think the boy had an concept that he was doing anything wrong or dishonest - he'd been told he was "trying" to get a six, and didn't understand that that was supposed to happen in accordance with the randomness of the die.


In this lesson the students quickly figured out that the die was just a means for generating a number which was just a means for prompting them to initiate a tracing activity. In other words, they realized that the "important" lesson was the tracing of numbers. They figured out that once they achieved understanding of the importance of the lesson they were free to do what they want. Why would you require them to do an activity that was pointless?

On the other hand, one of the "hidden curriculums" of schooling is to teach children obedience. That means following rules even when it makes no apparent sense. Why walk in a straight line in the hallway if you have no intention of making noise or being disruptive? Why wait for a hall pass if you genuinely need to go to the bathroom, you won't miss anything important while gone, and you always behave well in the bathroom?

Kids who stretch the rules are challenging to teachers because it forces them to constantly make their lessons and rules relevant and meaningful. A classic teacher mistake is to dig in his or her heels and enforce trivial rules for the sake of teaching rule-following. When that happens it almost becomes a moral imperative for a child to resist illegitimate authority.



We must teach them nature and physics has very rigid laws unless we satisfu the condition we cant overcome them.also fooling and cheating is only temporary. Solution to the problems is to play by rules.unless you have very high ethical and moral value we cant achieve this.also this makes us different from highly competitive animal world.


I do think the actions of the children constitute game theory, though on a basic level. In the case described, the kids were rigging the outcomes to their tastes. This would be at the expense of the other photo.
"Game theory is the science of strategy. It attempts to determine mathematically and logically the actions that “players” should take to secure the best outcomes for themselves in a wide array of “games.” The games it studies range from chess to child rearing and from tennis to takeovers. But the games all share the common feature of interdependence. That is, the outcome for each participant depends on the choices (strategies) of all. In so-called zero-sum games the interests of the players conflict totally, so that one person’s gain always is another’s loss. More typical are games with the potential for either mutual gain (positive sum) or mutual harm (negative sum), as well as some conflict."


Brian Gulino

Interesting that you alternatively call it "cheating" then "gaming the system". Who, exactly, is being victimized by this behavior? Much of what we call cheating is simply behavior which is institutionally inconvenient.

Gary Sweeten

The podcast about giving a large pot of money to the poor pointed out the futility of trying to change poor people into capitalists. That seemed to bum you out but it was simply one more nail in the co-dependency coffin. Ask any drug counselor, therapist how to motivate people to change and we all say, reward positive behavior not poor behavior. And, help the family support system get better at supporting positive behavior. It is the height of irrationality to think we can motivate a child independently of his support system. As I remember one of your articles on school choice. It showed that all the parents that signed up for the lottery to send their kids to a good school rented better performing children regardless of whether they won or lost the lottery. That seems to replicate the Georgia study. I am not depressed by the outcomes. I counsel people daily to change.


Maybe these kids aren't inherent cheaters or even learned cheaters for that matter. Maybe these kids just know that there is a fine line between winning a silly game, and, say, stealing a candy bar from the grocery store. It all depends on where they see that line. By no means would I assume that cheating in kindergarten is going to translate into becoming a thief or a liar. Perhaps the punishments given to these "petty cheaters" are too harsh given their actions. If the teachers or parents put greater emphasis on the more major issues like stealing or cheating on a test, then kids would have a more realistic understanding of that fine line seperating right from wrong.