Last updated: Fri. Aug. 03, 2012 - 01:41 pm EDT
In case you're short on time this week, I'll jump straight to the big 'aha' moment: If you're having fun playing a game with your kids, then you're doing it right. It doesn't matter if you're following the rules or not.
Fun comes first. Change the rules. Ditch the rules. Forget the rules. After all, it's your game now. You bought it.
Whew. Now, since you're still with me, let's watch some home movies.
"Howie, could you roll the film, please? Thanks."
The fellow on the left (with mostly-whole head of hair), that's me about, oh, a bunch of years ago. The little guy I'm playing Candyland with is my oldest son, who's now 21.
We're having fun, right? After all, we're playing together.
No, not exactly. My son is playing; I'm busy getting annoyed. Note the prune-shaped look of frustration growing across my face.
Now wait for it -- I'm about to utter a classic Awful Dad Line.
Ready? "No, no. Stop! You're not doing it right!"
Yeah, I said it. In fact, I said it a lot when our oldest kids were growing up. There I was, playing with my kids, listening to their laughter and enjoying their company, but I wasn't focused on that. No, I was focused on making sure they played the game "right."
My reasons sounded good to me at the time. Games teach important skills like taking turns, following rules, and not cheating. So if I didn't focus on those things when we played games, then my kids were missing out, right?
It turns out that following the rules and taking turns are hard for little ones. Kids start to really understand things like that when they're about 6. But most younger kids simply can't process those things. It isn't that they don't want to, they just don't have the thinking skills to make it happen. They will have the ability, in time. They just don't have it right now.
That's why my Awful Dad Line was so awful. I completely missed the magic of the moment. And that was the whole point.
Playing games with younger kids -- heck, with children of any age -- is about spending time together doing something fun. It's about laughing and making memories. Yes, games teach kids all kinds of skills, but that happens over time in the natural course of playing together. You don't need to worry about making it happen.
Don't get worked up if your little ones have trouble figuring out where to put their token next or if they suddenly jump from one side of the path to another. Gently help them and smile with them and laugh with them. Have fun in the moment.
Games such as Candyland exist to give you and your kids something to do together. And the most important words in that sentence are do together.
As your kids get older and you introduce them to new, more grown-up games, keep the focus on the fun of playing the game together, especially when you're learning how to play.
Emphasize that "we're playing a 'learning game' so we can all make mistakes and figure it out and still have fun." Learning a new game isn't about winning or losing; it's about learning something new and doing it together. The learning process creates a very unique, shared experience between you and your kids.
Think about this from your child's perspective for a moment. In her eyes, you seem to know everything. You know about making eggs for breakfast and how to drive the car. You know about libraries and the stars and why rabbits hop through the back yard.
But when you sit down with your child and say, "we're going to learn this game together," that's magic waiting to happen. You and your child are on the same level at the same time. Neither of you know what will happen next, but you're going to find out together.
And that, my friend, is a key part of why board games build connections between parents and kids.
So, ready to play?