Playing games with children can be fun. Many families have game nights every week or every month. Families might play card games. They might play board games. Some play ball or shoot hoops. Some play video games.
Games give families a chance to be together. Children learn to follow rules. Parents and children can learn about each other. They can relax. They can laugh. They can have fun.
And sometimes family members get serious with games. Some games have winners and losers. Family members might try hard to win. The children might really want to win. Or the parents might want to win. Sometimes the parents let the children win.
It can be hard to know what to do in family games. Should the parents let the children win? Should the parents always let the children win? Should families always play games that let everyone win and no one lose? What is best for parents? What is best for children?
Studies show that…
Play is important.
Play is an important way that children learn. Adults learn through play, too. Play and having fun are ways to open the mind. They also provide a break from serious times during the day. Games are one way to play.
Some parents need to be reminded that play is important for children. It is not a waste of time. And some parents might need help to learn to play with children. Maybe they did not have a chance to play when they were children. Those parents might need playtime as much as the children do. They might need to learn to play first. Then they can help their children play.
Family games combine the little and big people.
One thing that makes family activities fun is that everyone is together. Young and old do things at the same time. That is special, but it can be hard in some ways. Young children can’t do the same things that older children and adults can do. They have different skills. They have different needs. And they have different levels of power.
Child and parent power.
Parents have more power than children. And they have different kinds of power. Children know this. And parents know this. Children know that adults win most of the time. Adults know more things. They make more decisions. One fun thing about games is that sometimes the children can have the same power as adults. Sometimes they can have the same chance to win.
So, parents usually have more power. They also support and love children. Children know (or hope) they can count on their parents. The parents make decisions that are good for the children. So, the parents have power, but that power should be used to help the children. Love and support should be part of game times, too.
Types of Games and Letting Children Win
The kinds of games families play make a difference. Some games make it clear who has more power. Usually the older person has more power. Other games are more equal. Anyone can win. Or everyone can win. With those games, parents don’t need to worry about letting children win.
- Games of Chance
Some of the easiest games to play with young children do not take skills. They do not use information. They just take luck. Children will win as often as parents. The board game Candyland is one of these games. It might not be a lot of fun for adults, but it can be fun for children. And children learn game rules.
- Memory Games.
These games involve trying to match pairs. A person needs to remember where a picture was. Children are usually better at this than adults. So, it is a fun game for children to play with parents. They can often win.
- Trivia Games with Children’s Knowledge.
Some games focus on information that children know. They might know these things better than parents. Maybe the information is about children’s TV. Of it is about children’s music. Children are better than parents and other adults at these games. Then they have more power. It gives them a chance to win.
- Cooperative Games.
These are games that include everyone. There are not winners and losers. Everyone works together. There is a link to some examples of cooperative games at the end of this article. They can be fun for all ages. There are no losers. Brothers and sisters don’t get mad at each other. These games can make family game night fun!
Next steps for parents…
Ways for parents to play games with children.
We can put all these ideas together. That gives three different ways to play games that have winners and losers.
- Parents can let children win.
- What is good about this way of playing games? It can let the children feel powerful. It can let them feel good about themselves. They can feel happy when they play the games.
- What is bad about this way of playing games? Children will figure out that parents are letting them win. Then at least two things could happen:
- They can think they should always win. They might think that other children should let them win, too. Other children might not want to play with them.
- They can get the “imposter syndrome.” They don’t trust themselves to do anything. They know they didn’t really win. They don’t believe that the parents were being honest when they said anything positive.
- So… Maybe parents can let the children win sometimes, but it is not a good idea to do it all the time.
- Parents and children can compete as equals.
- What is good about this way of playing games? The parents and children are being honest. They both do their best. The winner really won.
- What is bad about this way of playing games? The parents are probably better at the most games. They will probably win most of the time. (This is true when the children are young. It might not be true when children are older.) The children might feel bad about themselves. They might not want to play games with parents. Someone always loses, and it might be the children.
- So… Families could choose games that give parents and children an equal chance. Or parents could help children to learn skills to get better at playing games. Or children could choose games that are harder for parents. Or families could choose games that let everyone win.
- Parents and children can team together.
- What is good about this way of playing games? All ages can work together on a team and learn from each other. Adults can teach the children how to play. Children can play harder games than they could play alone.
- What is bad about this way of playing games? It might be hard to find games to include everyone. And it takes more people to play games this way. But it can be a fun way to work together!
- So… You could try to match parents or older children together with younger children. Teach them how to play games. The rules might need to change a little. Learn to play cooperatively.
You could combine these ways to play. You let the children win sometimes. Then you could play as equals sometimes. Then later you could play as teams. You also could do different things with different ages of children. Your school-age children might be able to play a card game as equals. But a preschool child could sit with you as a teammate. She could watch your cards. She could help you choose which card to play.
Goals for parents…
Think about your time with your children. Think about times that you play games together.
- Be aware of power. Let your children have power sometimes when you play together.
- Learn to play. Maybe you didn’t play when you were young. Play games with your friends sometimes. Then you can try to win. Remind to be the parent when you play games with your children.
- Set up a time to play games as a family. Maybe you want to do this one day every week. Or maybe it would be one day every month. You could play games for one hour. Or you might want to plan more time. Put it on the family calendar. Let everyone help to decide what to play.
- Choose some new games to play with your children. Maybe they are games you already have. Maybe they are games you found online. Maybe you can trade games with a friends or family members. Choose games that fit your children’s abilities. Learn them together. Maybe play as teams.
- Try some new cooperative games. Look at the games in the link below. Try at least two of the games. Talk about how it is different to play cooperative games. Talk about how it is different from having games with winners and losers.
Play games with your family. Find out how everyone can win!
Cooperative games for families: http://www2.peacefirst.org/digitalactivitycenter/files/top_ten_games_for_families_0.pdf
Bongiorno, L. (2018). Talking with Parents about Play and Learning. Teaching Young Children, 11(5),18-20.
Ferguson, K. (2012). All in the family: On community and incommensurability. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Porta, S. D., Howe, N., & Persram, R. (2018). Parents’ and children’s power effectiveness during polyadic family conflict: Process and outcome. Social Development, 28(1), 152-167. DOI: 10.1111/sode.12333.
Want, J., & Kleitman, S. (2006). Imposter phenomenon and self-handicapping: Links with parenting styles and self-confidence. Personality and Individual Differences,40(5), 961-971. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.10.005