Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Gaming with children - should we let them win?

I must confess that I do not have children yet, but like every other self-respecting adult I have been a child once - some friends claim that I still am - and I also know quite a few families with children. Parents play games with their children - a very good endeavor - but some also let their kids win to protect the little ones' self esteem. Is that good practice?

Photo by Alan Light
When I was about 5 years old I saw this TV show about people playing chess and since communist Romania had exactly one TV channel at the time, I watched and became intrigued. I was also a lucky child because my parents always believed in me, so they taught me how to play chess. One lovely summer day after claiming that I understood the rules of chess and my father agreeing with this conclusion, my father and I played a competitive game of chess - my first chess game ever. I lost. I was a competitive man ever since I can remember, but so was my father.

That day a tradition started. Over the next many months, almost every Sunday morning my father was making time to beat his 7-year old son in a game of chess. I don't recall single duels with details, but I do remember a faint feeling of frustration. After every game which inevitably ended in my defeat, my father would explain how I could have played better. My father was no Kasparov, but his adult mind could easily devise the right strategy to defeat me. 

I heard my mom on several occasions scolding my dad for not letting me win even once and my father saying "that's how he'll learn" and not giving in at all. It was even more frustrating to know in advance that things would not change, but I was still looking forward to my next Sunday morning.

What my father did not know back then is that I kept count of the games we played and he was the proud winner of 41 consecutive games of chess against his son. But all that was about to change. I don't exactly remember how - I suspect that my mother had something to do with it - but I got my hands on a chess book which I read religiously several times. Since I am not a great chess player today, I probably did not understand much, but I had a very good memory and so I learned by heart as many opening as I could.

On our 42nd chess morning my father's winning streak was over. I took the time to think about my every move and after a few long hours, I could finally lift my fist up and scream "Victory!". My parents were surprised. After having seen 41 defeats in a row, I knew that my father had not let me win, but I still had to ask, hoping for a confirmation of my legitimate victory. He confirmed, and it made me feel so proud that I can still remember this story almost 30 years later.

It's been a while since I last thought of this story, but with my adult mind I realized that it was one of my most relevant childhood experiences and one that shaped my life. I learned not to give in to anything and anyone and I also learned that with a lot of hard work and persistence there is no mountain too high. But as a child, the one thing I took (without even knowing it) from my chess weekends with my dad was self confidence. I had found out that adults are not invincible and if they find their ways to deal with grown-up stuff and I can beat them, then I will also be able to handle anything life throws at me. Sadly my 42nd chess game against my father was also the last due to some family issues which are beyond the scope of this story. I was lucky enough to have just enough time to learn my very valuable life lesson. I still remember the frustration of more than a year of  chess loses, but the feeling of victory and the lesson learned are the most vivid and sweet ones.

Source: www.redmeeple.com
Fast forward 26 years into the future. A few weeks ago I was playing Galaxy Trucker with my 10-year old nephew. In the second round, his space ship was heavily damaged by evil aliens and asteroids, he realized that he could not win anymore and thus got upset and flipped the board. The game ended right there, with the adults explaining why that was not the right behavior and the child crying from anger. 

Another awkward experience was with an adult friend who dislikes every game she cannot win, blaming the game for being "stupid". In theory, dealing with adults should be easier, we are all supposed to have the ability to listen to reason. After three consecutive sessions of Ticket to Ride all in the same weekend, the friend qualified the game as "illogical" (defeat), "absolutely great" (win) and "stupid" (defeat). I believe that this kind of behavior is as a result of not having the relevant childhood gaming experiences. I am not referring only to board games, but to all childhood games. If adults offer their children a false sense of security and shield them from any kind of defeats, they shape the reality of their kids into a dangerously long streak of fake successes. As soon as children grow into young adults, they simply cannot be shielded anymore and the fresh adults stand to get heavily hurt.

Dear Parents, the holidays season is upon us and thus you have more time to spend with your children. I am not a parent and thus my experience is incomplete, so let me ask you a few questions. How do you play with your kids? How protective should one be with the young ones? How important are the lessons learned and what is the right balance between teaching and creating joy?

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  1. I've had the experience of opponents, children and adults, completely walk away from a game that they just can't seem to win. If they're not already a gamer, they sometimes walk away from playing anything.
    With children (and I am a parent of three) I find that letting them experience a win is overall a positive thing. Here are some guidelines:
    1) You can challenge them while secretly handicapping yourself.
    2) It must not be obvious, or there won't be a genuine sense of victory, as you described.
    3) Let them lose initially, gauging how soon they may need a boost to their confidence.
    4) Each child will have different thresholds; the more competitive, the longer they will hold out.
    5) Guide their turns with subtle corrections and advice, with diminishing frequency as they begin to play more intelligently.

  2. This sounds like very good advice for gaming with children and even non gamer adults. Thanks for sharing.