Games have always been a big part of my relationship with my husband. When we were in college, we played endless hands of gin rummy, and we kept an ongoing tally of our points that ran into the thousands. I taught Aaron casino, he taught me backgammon, and together we discovered German-style strategy games like Dominion and Innovation. We consider ongoing rivalry to be an important part of our home life.
That’s why it’s been so fun to start playing games with our 5-year-old son, Nate, who is the prime age for Chutes and Ladders, Go Fish, Bingo and Connect Four. Though some of these games are tedious (I’m looking at you, Candyland), they’ve given us our first opportunities to sit around the table together and start to build what I hope will become a family gaming tradition. What’s more, Nate’s school has a chess program, and it’s been fascinating to watch him learn. So far the kindergartners have only learned about pawns, but Nate knows how to correctly set them up, how they move and how they capture. He had a friend over the other day, and I was delighted to see them get out the chessboard and play a game.
With playing games comes winning and losing, and doing both gracefully is a hard skill to master. When he was younger, Nate sometimes collapsed in tears when he lost, but now he’s more likely to hold his emotions in check and demand another game. Game play can go on for quite a while when your opponent refuses to stop until he’s won.
Winning and losing is a dilemma for parents, too: I want Nate to experience losing, but I recognize that it’s no fun to play when you lose every game. I like to keep us more or less at an equal number of wins and losses, and that means letting him win sometimes, especially for harder games or when it’s getting close to bedtime.
Recently, Nate has been noticing when we let him win. “Didn’t you see that?” he’ll ask about a pawn that his father neglected to attack. “Why didn’t you block me?” he’ll question after beating me in Connect Four. I answer evasively and hide my smile; I love that he’s figuring out the strategy and realizing he wants the satisfaction of an earned victory.
Nate cackles hysterically as he leaves his dad in the dust over and over again.
Playing a board game requires Nate to follow someone else’s rules, but kids, of course, love to create their own rules. Ever since we moved to New York last summer, Nate has become obsessed with the subway system, and subway has become one of his favorite games to play around the house. Sometimes Nate locomotes himself around the house as the F or G train (the two lines that run near our home). Sometimes he is the conductor and gives his 2-year-old brother train rides on a sleeping bag he drags along the floor, and sometimes he tapes an F or a G sign on the front of an elephant push toy that he careens from room to room.
He announces: “This is a Manhattan-bound F local train. Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Beeboop, beeboop, chhhhhhhhh!” And he’s off.
Nate’s favorite iteration of the subway game is one that he plays with his father — or, more accurately, that he inflicts upon him. He tells Aaron to wait for the train, but every time it comes, it’s the wrong line, it’s going in the wrong direction, it bypasses the station or it drives off too quickly for Aaron to get on. Nate cackles hysterically as he leaves his dad in the dust over and over again.
For Nate, I think, this game is a wonderful release: He gets to be in charge and control how the world works, when so often he’s just trying to figure it out. Aaron, however, finds this exercise as frustrating in play as it would be in real life. Instead of being an escape, the game is forcing him to act out the vexations he already faces during his daily commute. I’ve encouraged Aaron to look at this as an exercise in mindfulness or a growth opportunity; he can practice accepting lack of control while his son experiments with being the wizard behind the curtain. Perhaps it could be a fruitful reflection on the illusion of autonomy in modern life. Aaron doesn’t see it that way yet. At least he and his son are establishing a healthy rivalry that they will build on for years to come.