Mary from New York writes…
Hello, Father Geek!
Just started visiting your web site and am so happy to see content that focuses on family and using games to teach life lessons. Wonderful!
I was wondering if you have any advice on how I can get my two kids to the table to play games. I am a single mother with a boy who is 10 and a girl who is 5. At ages 10 and 5, their interests and life experiences are very different. This has caused me problems in the past when I try to find an activity that will entertain the both of them. Don’t even get me started on the gender differences…
Excellent question, Mary!
My two oldest are about 3 years apart from each other (3 and 6 years old) and there is sometimes a world of difference between the two. Temperament and skills tend to be the biggest issues for my kids. While unavoidable, these two hindrances can be overcome and even used to the parent’s advantage.
Yes, let’s put the gender differences to the side for the moment. Gender is not a deciding factor in many cases, but it can be an excellent indicator and allow for educated assumptions on what games one or more of your kids might enjoy. Instead, let us focus on temperament and skills, my two favorite subjects.
Temperament is going to be your biggest hurdle. For example, when my 6 year old and 3 year old play Don’t Break the Ice, their playing styles are different enough to cause friction which then requires Mom and Dad to step in to calm things down. My 6 year old likes to play the game by the rules, while my 3 year old just likes to play. Don’t Break the Ice requires logical and critical thinking to determine what ice block to “break” that won’t cause the entire thing to collapse. My 6 year old thinks about his move before he takes a whack. When my 3 year old takes a turn, the only thing he thinks about is how best to hold the hammer so he can maximize his swing for the most damage.
You’d think that hilarity would ensue when this happens, but far from it. My 6 year old screams in frustration, my 3 year old laughs like a maniac, and I roll my eyes.
My 6 year olds temperament is one that is easily excited and highly emotional. When things don’t go his way or if he feels cheated, he can explode. He has not yet obtained the emotional intelligence and life experience that provide the tools needed to cope. Almost a polar opposite, my 3 year olds temperament is very easy going and quiet. He doesn’t take much stock in anything other than basic guidelines and tends to internalize his emotions before acting upon them.
Plus, you know, they are only 6 and 3 years old.
Skill is also important, but to a lesser degree. An adult can help their kids when the game gets too complicated or if the game requires a specific skill that the child just hasn’t mastered yet. Reading and math are usually required to some degree in most games. An older child will not have as much trouble as a younger child, especially if there is a large number of years (and education) between them. Just make sure you help each child equally. Nothing frustrates a child more than believing their mom and dad are helping their younger brother and sister win the game.
While this might not sound like a “good time”, this is actually how most board games go with my kids at this age. I usually have a very short time to play the game wherein both boys have the same interest and energy level. Once one or both start to slide towards indifference and boredom, things get a little hairy. Often, a game that would last 20 minutes only lasts about 5 to 10 minutes simply because my boys are not in the mood.
Differences in temperament and skill level is, of course, perfectly fine and expected. They will prove to be a hindrance, but only if allowed to be so. As I eluded to earlier, parents can use the differences between the two to their advantage.
Step 1, you will need to do some trial and error when it comes to finding a game everyone can agree upon. This might take some time and I encourage you to keep trying as the payoff is going to be huge. When you find a game that everyone agrees upon, you have found your “keystone” for the rest of what is to come.
Step 2, work on the temperament as this will be your most challenging, but also your most rewarding. Watch and listen for that moment when things start to turn from “fun” to “drudgery”. When you start to see it, have everyone take a break! Pause the game and get everyone a snack or something, but do not leave the table. You are all still playing and “in this together”, so to speak. Keeping the family together is very important at this point. Keep them on task, but let them calm down in their own way. If they want to talk about what is bothering them, encourage it. Talking out any problems that might be causing one or more players to loose their patience with another player is a wonderful idea. This strengthens communication and empathy towards others. Once everyone is calmed down, relaxed, and revived, start playing again.
Step 3, if one or more players is lacking some or all the skills to play the game effectively, help them as much as is necessary but never play the game for them. Read cards, help count dice, and point out where a piece should be moved to the board, but never take any action. The child is playing and you are simply assisting. If you start to play for them, you will quickly see them take a backseat and the other players will begin to feel cheated. More to the point, if you play for the child, they really aren’t learning anything. What a waste. I know it’s tempting, but if you find yourself feeling you need to play the game for them to keep the game going, perhaps you need to visit the Step 1 again.
This is what has worked and still works for me, Mary. Try my method if you think it will help and be beneficial to you and your children. Or, and even better, take what I suggest and create your own solution. You know your kids better than anyone on the planet and I cannot think of a better person to help coach them than the person who cares about them the most.
Best of luck, Mary, and may all your games with your children by fun and not emotionally scaring.