The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Raising Gamers 1.0

Carol Rifka Brunt

March, 2005

The Fine Art of Not Taking A Dive

I'm not one for throwing a fight. I don't often miss an opportunity to pin my opponent to the wall or back him into a corner. It's what I love about games—I can throw off the shackles of polite society and behave with ruthless competitiveness. Games give even the meekest among us an excuse to be cutthroat.

The problem is that this attitude doesn't look so good when I'm playing games with my kids, ages 5 and 8. It's not that the kids don't put up a good fight—it's that sometimes adults can't help but have a big advantage. After all, they've played more games, they've been around the block. So, if grown-ups often have an edge does that mean we should let the kids win?

I'm inclined to say no. There's something that feels dishonest about purposely letting kids win games. Maybe it's just that I can't bear to do less than my best, but deep down I think the only way for kids to develop into good gamers is to compete against people who are trying their best. It also seems that regularly letting a child win takes some of the sweetness out of a real win. How will a child be able to tell when a win is earned as opposed to given?

I suspected, however, that my kid gaming policies might be a bit harsh. Perhaps I wasn't teaching my kids the ins and outs of good game strategy at all, but rather demonstrating a big-time lack of generosity. With this on my mind I took a wander around the web to see what some "experts" had to say on the subject.

My first visit was to discovergames.com, where I found an article by author/educator Theresa Foy DiGeronimo titled "Let Children Win at Board Games." The title didn't seem to bode well for my tough love gaming attitude. What she suggests, however, is that letting 3 and 4 year-olds win is a good idea, but once kids reach 5 or 6, it's a "no-no." She says that losing in a "low-stakes," safe situation, such as against parents, prepares kids for harder losses they may experience with peers. Parentcenter.com and an article by social worker Gina Roberts-Grey at childrentoday.com took a similar stance, echoing the importance of kids "learning to develop the skill of losing," which can only happen if they actually experience it.

I must say that I felt somewhat vindicated by the advice I came across. Perhaps I was not the ogre I thought I was. Alas, however, I suspect that most of these experts are writing about games of luck, where losing isn't so much a statement of a lack of ability as just a bad roll of the dice. I suspect that, like me, most readers of The Games Journal try to wean their young'uns off pure luck games as quickly as possible to move them on to something a bit more challenging. I also think that Games Journal parents are perhaps more concerned than the average parent that their kids learn to love and keep loving games. In other words, we might sometimes be prone to let our kids win simply to keep them liking games.

And who can blame us? Every game playing parent has dreamy visions of the day their kids will be old enough to join them in a rousing game of Settlers or hold their own in Through the Desert or Puerto Rico. We're thinking of the future when our kids are old enough to beat us fair and square. We picture the family huddled over the kitchen table laughing together, strategizing, fully involved and engaged in the world of the board on the table. We cross our fingers in the hope that our kids will catch the gaming bug. Even I, with my hard-line stance on the letting kids win, have been known to loosen my grip on the game when I see the kids losing interest or just plain not enjoying it anymore.

So, the question is, how do we keep our kids loving games without turning them into sore losers? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Choose games that are fun even if your kids don't end up winning. Ticket to Ride has been a big winner here. I mean, kids get to build trains and collect cards and be fully active throughout the game. They hardly notice if they're winning or losing until after the game is over and everyone is tallying points. We have yet to have a single "sore loser" episode with this one.
  • Point out strategy during the game. "Hey, did you notice that dad always... why do you think he's doing that?" I'd be even more overt than that in explaining winning moves. Letting kids in on how to think about games helps take the mystery out of winning and losing. Of course, it's even better when kids come up with strategy on their own, but in the early years parents can do a lot to help kids learn to decipher ways to win. After all, we wouldn't expect a child to teach himself how to swim without priming him on the strokes.
  • Let the kids choose two games to every one chosen by an adult. For each game of Carcassonne or Dragonland, let them have their fun with Go Fish or Candyland.
  • Play in teams. This lets kids watch strategy from the inside out and gives them a chance to play many games that are beyond their years. They get to be co-conspirators and can take risks without bearing full responsibility. Losses are shared, taking much of the sting out of the experience.
  • Good old reverse psychology. There's nothing more likely to arouse curiosity in kids than being told that they're not old enough to do something. Telling a child "I don't think so, you'd just get frustrated" not only ramps up their drive to play the game, but provides incentive for them to stay in control. After all, they wouldn't want to prove mom or dad right and behave like a sore loser.
  • Choose when to play. For a long time we had a nightly, after-dinner game but we also had frequent bouts of "sore loser" syndrome. On weekends our family tended to play games in the morning and noticed that the kids played better, lost less and handled losses with much more dignity. The lesson was that after dinner was basically a cranky time of day, especially on school nights. Everyone was too worn out to do their best. Choosing a time when everyone is in good form works far better.
  • Maybe most important is knowing when to throw in the towel. Games don't always need to be finished. If kids are obviously in over their heads, be willing to put that game away and let them choose again. It isn't really fun for anyone if the cards are too stacked in the adult's favor.

So, in the end, I say it's worth sticking with the rules. Not only will kids "learn how to lose" as the experts suggest, but when they do win—and they will—the knowledge that they did it all on their own is as sweet as it gets. Perhaps just sweet enough to turn those kids into lifelong gamers.

- Carol Rifka Brunt

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