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When Cheating Is Really Creative Playing : Games: Youngsters have a hard time following board-game rules. Parents are advised to let them make up their own.

THE HARTFORD COURANT

Almost every night for the last two months, Jake Michaud of Hartford has sat down to a hot game of Chutes and Ladders with his 4-year-old daughter, Tracy.

The nightly games started as a good way to spend time with his daughter.

Now he is playing out of a sense of parental guilt.

He hates the nightly tussle--not because he gets soundly trounced or anything, but because Tracy cheats.

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Or, rather, Tracy “creatively approaches” the rules and makes them her own.

And that worries her father: “I want her to play by the rules, but she wants to go up the chutes and down the ladders, or she wants to ignore the spinner and move only to the ladder spaces.”

He thinks a moment.

“Does this sound weird, that I worry about this?”

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Funny how the makers of Chutes and Ladders probably never realized just how much angst their brightly colored board could cause. Same with the people who brought you Operation, Candyland, Parcheesi, Battleship, Monopoly and any other board game favored by the younger set.

Whatever the endeavor, if you have sat down to play a game with a 4- or 5-year-old lately, you have come upon a great truth.

Kids cheat.

They also lie.

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And you, as a parent, are left with a bit of a dilemma.

Do you insist that your children play by the rules, and then trounce them every single time? What does that do for their self-esteem?

Or do you allow a little leeway--or a lot of leeway--and let the children win? And what does that do for their attitudes toward winning and losing?

Much of the decision rests in the reason you play with your children in the first place.

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“You play because you want to have fun with the kids, you want them to learn some skills, improve their attention span and share,” said Jane Richards-Jones, program director of Creative Parenting in New Britain, Conn.

“We tried with our son (then age 3) to get him to pass the ball back and forth, and he would make up games that involved throwing it over our heads and over the roof,” she said.

That worried her, because when her son grew up, wouldn’t he have a hard time playing with his peers?

But Richards-Jones knows that strict adherence to rules in play is not something most younger kids relish--or even do well. Especially the preschoolers.

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Preschoolers hate to lose. And they are the epitome of free form.

As children enter school, however, they begin to understand that rules have to be followed, she said.

“As they push on toward 7, they have a growing ethical sense. “They don’t like lying and cheating, and they begin to develop a better sense for rules. By the time they are 9, they are very concerned with fairness.”

Rick Sadler, clinical director of the child guidance clinic at Child & Family Services in Hartford, said parents should remember that there is a world of difference between play and games. A game is an interaction with specified rules. Play is whatever comes to mind at the time.

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“Little children almost always play and aren’t capable of games,” Sadler said. “Between the ages of 5 and 8, most children want to turn a game into just playing.”

One option is to avoid board games as much as possible and let the child make up a game. Listening to their own rules--the outlining of which often takes longer than the actual game--can be entertainment enough.

Or, depending on the child’s age, Sadler suggests that parents play board games with children but let them make the rules--all the while acknowledging that they are no longer playing by the game’s official rules.

“They (parents) can say, ‘Oh, we are no longer playing Chutes and Ladders. It’s fine to do it this other, creative way,’ ” he said.

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