I was pretty excited when my eldest was old enough to play Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. I’d been waiting for years and years to reach board game age.
Unfortunately, the two-and-a-half-year age gap between my kids meant that my youngest wasn’t ready—not by a long shot. Neither was he interested in leaving us alone to play a board game without his “help.” If you have a toddler, you know just how helpful they can be.
I came up with “baby rules,” which meant that the baby got to do whatever he wanted while the big one and I played the usual way. If the baby (who was actually a toddler) spun a five and wanted to move six spaces, I let him. If he wanted to go down the ladder and up the chute, I let him.
This carried forward year after year to games like Monopoly, where he could keep any property he wanted free of charge. Now that the baby is a preteen, I’m starting to regret the whole, ‘the rules don’t apply to you,” aspect of my board game strategy.
For one thing, my eldest is a law and order kid. He’s a rule-follower. Watching his little brother cheat his way to the finish line and declare himself the winner was sometimes more than my eldest could handle. He never hit his brother, but he may have thrown the board once or twice in frustration.
If cheating is rewarded or at least tolerated, what value is there in playing by the rules? Turning a blind-eye to my youngest child’s cheating was teaching my oldest that I didn’t value his ethics, when in fact it is one of his characteristics that I am most proud of.
But there’s more.
My youngest never got to feel the joy of actually succeeding. He never got to witness his own growth and feel pride in that. I remember playing chess with my father when I was a kid. At first, he beat me all the time. After a few years, I was able to beat him on occasion. If he had let me win, I never would have gotten to feel the pleasure of winning on my own merit.
Also, even though I tell my children that hard work is just as important as natural ability, by letting my son win, I was actually teaching him the opposite—that I didn’t have time or patience for him to learn at his own pace. I was encouraging false pride and inflated ego over more profound satisfaction for actually putting in the effort to improve over time.
I don’t let my kid win anymore. I will admit that at times I feel uncomfortable beating my kid at games, and I’m still tempted to let him win at least on occasion. But instead of letting them win, I sometimes opt to play games where I always lose.
Our games have changed as they’ve gotten older, and now sometimes I’ll pick up a controller and sit in on a round of Mario Kart. I’m terrible. I generally come in 12th place out of 12. Slowly, though, I’m improving. Once I even made it into the top 5. And my kids applaud my improvement, even though we all know I’ll never get to their level.
They see me play a game I always lose just for the fun of hanging out with them, and I think there’s value in that, too.