“I’m going to be in charge of the money,” she announces. “Okay, dad?”
The junior version of everyone’s love-to-hate property trading game is spread out on our living room floor, and we’re counting out small piles of pretend cash according to the rules.
We’ve been spending our Monday evenings playing more board games, and as she learns the rules her confidence has slurped its way from an eager appreciation of the game itself into a loitering desire to be in charge of them.
“Fine.” I say, indifferent mostly but cognizant of the potential for a frustration-induced tantrum if the extra responsibility equates to extra distraction and her losing because of it. “Just make sure you count things very carefully.”
“I know, daddy.” She groans.
“I’m just making sure.” I use my dad-voice. “I don’t want you to rush through it.”
“I’ll be careful.” She insists.
It has occurred to me more than once as we’ve played our way through our modest library of kid-friendly board games that there is a tricky sort of equilibrium in teaching children to engage in these complex little toys. Games, after all, are a kind of social contract to follow the written rules and abide by certain forms of social engagement. One doesn’t peak at someone else’s cards. One doesn’t fudge a dice roll. And one doesn’t sneak extra cash from the bank. Children are not natural cheaters, of don’t think, but the desire to win has made (at least in my limited experience) the need to be more explicit about these social behaviors a part of everyday game-play.
I watch carefully, but without being too obvious about it, as she carefully and methodically counts out the bills of multi-coloured game currency. “There,” she says, handing me my share as she finished. “You can count it again if you want.”
“No.” I shrug. “Let’s just play.”
Games seem like they have the potential to be little microcosms of social order, nurturing all manner of valuable life skills. They are fonts of tactical wisdom, conveyors of strategic thinking skills, opportunities for creative engagement, and certainly many other important-sounding child-rearing-type words that help modern parents justify spending lots of money on expensive cardboard toys and clambering down to the carpet to roll some dice and place some tiles. They are also fun and interactive. Which is probably more important.
Every move we play, however, is almost as real as it is pretend. Real reactions to a bad bit of luck. Real handshakes when it’s all over. And real trust handed over to kids who are yearning to be in charge of something and demonstrate that they not only understand rules and fair play, but can help administer it, too.