“Count to 10,” my husband whispered to me under his breath. He turned to 5-and-a-half-year-old Adi* and pointed to two cards out of the 12 laid before us, and asked “What card completes this set?” She poured over the cards as I reached 10, and continued to 20, before pointing out the third card in the set. I took the trio of cards and set them before me.
We had just finished brunch with friends and were playing a game of “Set” with the kids.
“Set” is a fast-paced, family-friendly card game where players race to collect sets of three cards, and the attributes are either all similar or all different. The cards ran out and my husband helped Adi count her sets. “Five!” she announced proudly. I counted my 14 sets and discreetly winked at hubby. Adi asked each of us how many sets we collected, but we avoided the question as I quickly shuffled the cards and suggested another round. She seemed content to play another game, and I laid out 12 new cards.
Half-absorbed in the conversation with the rest of the adults, I gave Adi more time to find sets on her own as my husband explained to her how to scan the cards quicker and more efficiently. By the end of the game, she had collected eight of the possible 27 sets. “Another round?” I suggested. Instead, she howled, “This isn’t any fun. I’m not winning.”
My husband, in his infinite patience, pointed out that she was improving from game to game and that it’s not about winning or losing, but about having fun. I put the cards back in their box and the kids went into the play room to find a different game.
Later, during the car ride home, we discussed Adi’s reaction during the game. It’s not the first time we’ve played games with Adi and her younger brother, nor is it the first time we’ve played with children. Likewise, it’s not it’s not the first time we’ve had this conversation. But this time it was different. That afternoon, I couldn’t help but observe the obvious frustration in Adi’s eyes as she lost a second time, and wondered if I should have been more lenient and let her win. I quickly dismissed the idea.
My husband and I love Eurogames (strategy-based board games), despite our very different attitudes towards them. For instance, I am super competitive and play to win. I love strategy-based games because of the planning and tactical thinking needed in order to play a competitive game. When I play with friends, I don’t always win, although I always try to see what I can learn from my opponents. This is especially true when I lose.
On the other hand, hubby, who loves to teach, prefers to enjoy the game. He will verbally analyze plays during the game, especially when playing with people who are weaker than him. He patiently explains tactics so the other players can see why some moves are better than others, and learn to improve their own game (many times this will cost him the game).
When it comes to playing with kids, it seems that there’s a fine balance between teaching them how to play competitively, and teaching them to play for their enjoyment, regardless of who wins. On the one hand, it’s important to teach children how to play by the rules, look at the situation, and analyze it to their advantage. By simplifying a game or bending the rules, we aren’t teaching them to be better players nor does it prepare them to play (and possibly lose) against others. On the other hand, I don’t want to put a child in a situation where they get frustrated to the point that they no longer enjoy a game, just because they can’t win
The day’s scenario raised two points—one regarding how we should act when playing with other peoples’ kids—and the second regarding how we want to play with our own kids. When playing with other people’s children, should we play by their rules? Should we let them win?
I really look forward to the day when I can play strategy games with my own kids. I hope they enjoy playing with me and their dad, knowing that we won’t be easy with them, but we will teach them how to play competitively. When they win a game against me, they’ll know it’s because they played well and not because I let them win.
*Name changed for privacy.