When Children Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness

Fairness makes play possible, and children learn fairness in play.

Posted Nov 24, 2019

Max Pixel Public Domain
In playful fighting you can't treat everyone the same.
Source: Max Pixel Public Domain

I am a long-time admirer of Marc Bekoff and his research on play among canids (wolves, coyotes, dogs and the like). I was happy, therefore, to see his recent Psychology Today blog post entitled "When Dogs Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness." My post here is a response to Marc’s. I’ve stolen his title, only changing the word “Dogs” to “Children.” I know he will take this small act of thievery as intended—an act of respect.

Play fighting in dogs and children

Playful fighting is the primary means of playing among dogs, and it is also a favorite way of playing among children, especially boys. Unfortunately, people observing play fighting in either dogs or children often mistake it for real fighting and therefore intervene and stop it. But actually, play fighting is the opposite of real fighting.

The purpose of a real fight is to drive off, subdue, or hurt the other individual and thereby end the encounter. The purpose of a play fight, in contrast, is to have fun and ensure that your playmate is having fun, thereby prolonging the encounter, and to do that each party must refrain from driving off, subduing, or hurting the other. Real fighting makes enemies; play fighting makes friends. For such an encounter to occur, the participants must follow certain rules—rules that would never be followed in a real fight. These are the rules that Marc refers to as “the golden rules of fairness.” They are the same for dogs and children.

The golden rules of fairness in play fighting, as applied to dogs and children

Here are the rules Marc lists for play fighting in dogs. For each, I’ll elaborate a bit on how it applies to children.

Daily Dog Spot free to share
Let's play!
Source: Daily Dog Spot free to share

1. Ask first and communicate clearly. Marc points out that dogs signal their desire to play through the play bow, in which they face the potential playmate and crouch down on their forelimbs while their rear remains elevated. When both dogs show this signal an agreement is sealed, meaning “let’s play.”

Other animals have different signals to initiate play. For most primates, it is a facial expression called the relaxed open-mouth display, or play face, which is homologous to the human happy smile and laugh. Children, of course, signal the desire to play in various ways, including verbally (“Let’s play”), but the words are all the more compelling if accompanied by the nonverbal signal of smiling or laughter.

2. Mind your manners. For play to continue, each participant must accommodate themselves to the abilities and needs of the partner. Among dogs, the more dominant animal must suppress any tendency to dominate, as expressions of dominance would drive off the playmate and end the fun. Similarly, among children, the stronger or more skilled one must self-handicap in some way to avoid overwhelming the playmate.

In all such play, for both dogs and children, each participant must take care to avoid seriously hurting the other. For dogs, this means that the play bite must be a nip, not a real bite. For children it means they must abide by certain implicit or explicit rules: No biting; no scratching; no kicking if you have shoes on; no hitting hard; if you throw the other person, you must throw them on something soft. 

In addition, play fighting for both dogs and children usually involves a certain amount of turn-taking. For example, in playful wrestling, they may take turns assuming the on-top and the more vulnerable underneath positions. In a real fight, no dog or child would voluntarily put himself in a vulnerable position.

3. Admit when you are wrong. Sometimes in the excitement of a play fight, a dog might nip too hard, or a child might hit too hard. This may induce a yelp or a non-playful threat from the one that was hurt. In response, to keep the play going, the offender must quickly apologize. The dog does this by reasserting the play bow, which in this context means, “I’m sorry, it was an accident, let’s continue playing.” Children might do so with those words, or something similar, but the words are all the more meaningful if accompanied by a nonverbal facial expression of guilt or sympathy. 

Generally, the offended party is quick to accept the apology—with another play bow for the dog or maybe an “OK” from the child. Both parties are eager to play, and so they are eager to apologize and forgive.

4.  Be honest. In theory, a dog or child might use play signals and apologies deceptively, and then attack seriously, to hurt the other participant. But this rarely happens. Dogs and children want to play, and they acquire valuable social skills in doing so. Those who cheat in this kind of play will not find future playmates, and this will reduce their long-term success in life.

In a field study of coyotes, Bekoff found that those few coyote juveniles who cheated in playfights often left the pack and were far more likely to die young than those who played honestly. I suspect that children who regularly cheat in this kind of play are likely to become social isolates, who fail to succeed because we humans can never really succeed alone. So, natural selection would weed out genes tending to promote cheating in play.

Fairness in All of Children’s Play

Anyone who has spent much time observing children play independently of adult control knows that they are very concerned with fairness. “That’s not fair” is among the most common phrases you will hear. It is used not just by those who feel that they have been mistreated in some way, but also by those who are pointing out the mistreatment of someone else. You hear it among children of all ages—from 3- and 4-year-olds playing a fantasy game and negotiating about who gets to use which props on through teenagers organizing their own ball game. In his extensive observational study of children’s play in nursery schools, Hans Furth (1996) pointed out that the “fairness rule” seems to be the primary meta-rule of play; it underlies every instance of play.

There is a simple reason why play must be fair. The fairness doesn’t come from some highfalutin moral philosophy nor from deep-seated altruism. Children are neither philosophers nor angels. Nor are dogs. Fairness comes from the simple reality that play with others is only possible if it is fair. To play, all players must agree to continue playing, and the person (or dog) who is treated truly unfairly will quit. The most important freedom in play is the freedom to quit. If you and I are two children playing, I must treat you fairly or you will quit, and I will be left alone and sad. Eventually, with enough such experiences, I learn to be fair. As I pointed out in a previous essay, freedom to quit is the most basic of all freedoms; it promotes fairness and reduces bullying in all activities where that freedom prevails.

The Golden Rule of Play

Bekoff’s use of the term “golden rules” to refer to the rules underlying play fighting in dogs leads me to think about the Golden Rule (with capital letters) taught in Sunday School: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I remember thinking, even as a child, that there is a certain shortcoming to that rule. What if the needs and desires of another person are different from mine? What I want to be done to me may not be the same as what you want to be done to you.

When children who differ in size, ability, and disposition are playing together, the Golden Rule doesn’t suffice. Each player must treat each other player in accordance with that person’s needs and desires, not always in accordance with their own needs and desires. Fairness in play does not mean that everyone is treated the same. It means that everyone is treated in a way that keeps the game fun for them. In a play fight, the bigger and stronger might enjoy the experience of the smaller player hitting him as hard as he can, but the reciprocal of that would not be enjoyed by the smaller one. In play, children learn to respect human differences. Fairness comes not from thinking everyone is the same, but from recognizing and respecting the differences.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the overriding, singular Golden Rule of Play (which I will capitalize) is “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” That is a cognitively harder rule to follow. It’s relatively easy to know what you want; it’s not so easy to know what another person wants. To play effectively, you must somehow get into the other person's mind and infer his or her desires. Amazingly, even little children can do that pretty well; they illustrate this sophisticated ability regularly in their play. I wonder if dogs can do that? Marc suggests that they can, and perhaps he is right.

Marc concluded his essay with this boldfaced statement: Unleash your dog and let them play to their heart’s content. And so, I conclude: Unleash your child and let them play to their heart’s content. Unleash them figuratively as well as literally. Dogs and children are much better at sorting things out and playing fair than many of us believe, and our interventions usually hinder more than they help.

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And now, what are your observations, thoughts, and questions about children's fairness in play?

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References

Furth, H. G. (1996). Desire for society: Children’s knowledge as social imagination. New York: Plenum.