Q.My question concerns family games and the old dilemma of whether to let a child win often to keep him interested -- and happy -- or to play it in the "real world," hoping to build character but instead inviting tears of discouragement.
It occurred to me that "handicapping," as in golf and horse racing, might be the answer to even up the competition. The child could be given an advantage suitable to his age and the game. Then, as his skill develops, he can take pride in each lowered advantage.
Or maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he would fight for as much advantage as he could get and expect similar consideration from everyone in any kind of competition. What do you think?
A.A child loves to win, and yet he has to learn how to lose sometimes, and to do it with grace. He only learns this lesson if he has the chance to win enough to be self-confident, and if he can win with honor.
Handicaps would only teach a child that winning a game matters more than playing it. Besides, the concept is so complicated it could boomerang. If the child wins, he might think the game has to be rigged to do it, which would be demoralizing. If he loses, however, he might think the advantage wasn't big enough -- and he might be right. Realistic handicaps are hard to fix for a growing, changing child.
The child who repeatedly gets upset when he loses should quit playing that game until he's older, and his parents should offer other games that might suit him better.
One is the Ungame, a non-competitive game where players talk about their feelings. Another idea is the cooperative board game, where all the players work together to overcome an obstacle. It's a good way to teach the concept of winning and losing, but don't expect the interest to last as long as it does in competitive games, or to be as intense. Children are not lulled as easily as adults think.
For continuing appeal, games need the element of excitement -- even fear -- because children like their games to be a little scary. And choose games that are fun, particularly those that have been on the market for years. The toys and games that endure are those that teach values and give information, without the young players being aware that they're getting anything more than a good time.
In general, competitive games can bond a family tighter, but only if they're not taken too seriously.
You also have to be careful not to push children too hard, too soon. This is tempting, but most children -- even when they're quite smart -- follow a normal progression according to their chronological, not their mental age. It's also important to start with games of luck for the first few years, and then move on to games of skill.
Candyland, Old Maid and War (where the players match cards, with the high card taking the trick) are best for a 5-year-old because these games depend solely on luck -- and they don't last very long. Even so, you can expect the child to cry sometimes when he loses, and if he loses too often he will change the rules over and over to suit his needs, or he may cheat blatantly to win.
Parcheesi and Uno are ideal for first graders. By that age, a child has more respect for the rules, but don't be surprised if he still wants to change them, and if he still cheats. This may be all right, so long as you play his way, cheats and all, turning the game into a joke.
Sorry and Clue take over by age 8, and the child may get into dominoes, checkers, backgammon and the junior versions of Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble. But parents should be careful here. As good as these games are, they can be too much for a child to handle, for they depend on skill. Go easy when you introduce these games; hold back on your clever moves occasionally (but never obviously) until winning seems easier for the child.
You'll be giving him a handicap, in a sense, but it will work better because the differences aren't spelled out.
Amusing card games make a good transition for the child who wants to compete before he's quite ready. Try "spit and pig" or "quadruple solitaire," where everyone plays on each other's aces and the winner is the one with the most cards in the middle. These are all rowdy enough to cause a lot of laughs.
The more you focus on the "funniness factor," the more you will put winning into perspective.
Physical games, like blindman's bluff, hide-and-seek and giant steps, do this well, and children are especially pleased when grown-ups take part. If that seems too undignified, try an old-fashioned jigsaw puzzle of a scenic picture, with many pieces and everyone joining in.
By age 10 a child should be ready for every neighborhood competition, from soccer and baseball to the king of board games: Monopoly. Expect all-weekend games, screams, accusations, jokes, maybe some stealing from the bank -- and a great deal of fun.