It seemed like such a good idea at the time: scheduling a family games night. Back when you first added “family games night” to the calendar, you had a picture in your head of how much fun this night would be for you and your kids, with everyone talking and laughing as you moved your game pieces around the board. Of course, that fantasy only lasted until the moment you actually started playing. Then, before you knew it, one kid was crying, another was stomping out of the room, and you were left wondering how it could all go so wrong so fast….
As it turns out, this is a pretty common scenario. It’s not just your family that has a hard time playing board games. Almost every parent I’ve talked to about the supposed joy of family games night has a board game horror story to share with me. Kids crying, parents trying to convince them that there’s nothing to cry about, kids crying harder. It’s the stuff of which not-so-great family memories are made….
Fortunately there are things you can do to put the fun back in family games night.
One option is to make a point of playing cooperative games (games that encourage players to work as members of team that is pursuing a common goal like solving a puzzle). Now I have to say, I didn’t have a lot of success getting my kids excited about playing cooperative games during their growing up years. Some of the games I purchased at the time were (dare I say it?) pretty boring! But apparently cooperative games have come a long way since then. In fact, according to a couple of parents I have spoken with recently, the current generation of cooperative games (games like Codenames, for example) are challenging enough to actually be fun for adults and kids alike. Trust me: that’s a big improvement!
Another option is to tweak the rules of traditional games to make them a little less cut throat. This is the approach my friend Cathy chose to take when her two daughters were growing up. I have fond memories of our two families playing Cathy’s kinder, gentler version of Monopoly. Here are a few examples of how the game would work. If a player was down on her luck, the other players could help that player out by paying her tax bill or picking up the tab for her rent as opposed to gleefully driving her into bankruptcy. Likewise, a player who was lucky enough to land on “Free Parking” and who got to scoop up all the free money was expected to share that financial windfall with other players. Cathy’s version of the rules didn’t make the game any less enjoyable — but it certainly cut back on the tears. I don’t have a single memory of any player crying. Not ever!
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with another parent, Jenny Raspberry, who has found other creative ways of tweaking the rules of traditional games to make them more fun and less cut throat for her two school-aged kids. Starting when her kids were really little, she gave them the opportunity to play grown-up board games, but in a way that wouldn’t be too discouraging or too frustrating. She started out by giving her kids the chance to join a team led by an adult. A five year old’s role as a junior member of the team might be to role the dice or spin the game spinner or to move the game piece around the board (the actual fun stuff when you’re a five year old). Being part of a team gave her kids a way to be part of the game and to learn the rules in a non-threatening, age-appropriate way. And if the team lost, it was no big deal because it wasn’t the child’s loss, it was the team’s loss, and so it felt a whole lot less personal.
Of course, some people may wonder if it’s a good idea to dial back on that element of competition. After all, don’t kids have to learn how to hold their own in a fiercely competitive world? Sure, they do have to learn that lesson eventually — but I don’t think we have to go out of our way to look for opportunities to teach them that lesson. Life has a way of delivering those kinds of learning opportunities on a fairly regular basis, after all.
Jenny has found some sensible middle ground. She tells her kids, who are now eight and ten, that they won’t always have the opportunity to play by their family’s kinder and gentler board game rules. There will be times when they are playing board games at someone else’s house when they’ll have to play by the official (and inevitably harsher) rules. She also tells them that they’ll have to practice being gracious losers and gracious winners so that other people will actually want to play games with them again.
So it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition (you don’t have to raise kids who are only willing to pay cooperative games or competitive games) and the rules can evolve over time, as kids get more practice at being good winners and good losers.
Another way to reduce the amount of crying during board games is to ask yourself upfront what kind of experience you want your family to have while they’re playing the game — and to choose your board game accordingly. This is something Jenny thinks about a lot. She loves playing board games as a family, but that doesn’t mean she’s necessarily a fan of every kind of board game. Frankly, she’s not…. She explains: “I feel like any game where you can be purposefully malicious to another player….[tends] to lead to more harsh feelings.” These types of games also tend to trigger a desire for revenge — and those aren’t exactly the kinds of feelings she wants to be promoting when the goal is to have a fun time as a family.
That’s not to say that you want to avoid playing cut-throat games entirely, but, if you do decide to play that kind of game, maybe you want to talk a bit about what’s happening in the game. Is it fair that a few lucky rolls of the dice can give a particular player a huge advantage? How does it feel to be one of the other players in the game — say a player who is really down on his luck?
As it turns out, that was one of the original intentions of the inventor of the 1904 board game The Landlord’s Game – the game that inspired Monopoly: to spark these very types of conversations. The inventor of that game, Lizzie Magie, had envisioned her game as a critique of capitalism. In fact, at one point her game came with two very different sets of rules: one set that promoted widespread prosperity (a world in which every player had the potential to do well) and one set that created a winner-takes-all situation (the version of the game that inspired Monopoly).
Is it worth the effort to have these kinds of conversations – and to put so much thought into the types of board games you choose to play with your kids? Jenny Raspberry thinks it is. She told me that her family is already reaping the rewards of being mindful of their approach to playing board games. “The best for me is when my daughter is having a hard time in the game and my son says, ‘It’s okay’ or ‘Yay, good for you!’ when she [makes a good move]: to see them copying what I’m trying to instil. Yes, they are sometimes still poor sports, but when the positive comes out, I really feel like, ‘Oh, they’re going to have each others’ backs in life.’ And, for me, that’s the best.”
So it’s all about finding that sensible middle ground: a way to make family games night fun as opposed to a source of mutual dread.
Let the board games begin!