Playing By The Rules

Have you played a game of Candyland, or some modern version of Go Fish with your preschooler and noticed how rarely it resembles the instructions on the box?  If you ask your child how to play this game you may get a rough outline of what the idea is, but more often what you’re told is where to start and where to finish.

“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”.  Nonsense!  It doesn’t matter how you play the game, the point is to win.  Young children have little interest in rules – although they may pay lip service to the idea in order to placate parents.  They improvise as they go along, moving their pieces in whatever direction serves their purpose.  And the purpose is to be the winner!

If you try to correct your child and tell her the rules don’t permit the way she is playing, she may argue with you and want to prove that those moves are allowed.  Or else she may tell you that this game is being played by different rules and she is allowed to do what she is doing.  If you persist in your corrections you may find your child telling you that the game is boring, or she really doesn’t want to play this game anymore.

Parents often take a dim view of this behavior.  If a child takes more turns than allowed, or jumps ahead of where he is supposed to be, they may tell him he is cheating, or otherwise express disapproval.  Sometimes a game that was supposed to be fun ends up badly because mom or dad and their child have different points of view.  The child’s interest is in winning, mom and dad are interested in how he plays the game.

Most parents are aware of their child’s intense wish to win, but it makes them a little uncomfortable.  It’s as if there is something “not nice” about showing this unabashed need to win.  As if it is a moral failing, or a character flaw.  Mothers often ask me if it is “right”, purposely to let children win.  They are worried if a child expects, or wants to win all the time, and report conflicts with peers over this.   

Wouldn’t we all like to win?  What is it about children being so up front about it that bothers us?  The problem is we’re making adult judgments about children’s behavior.  We have all had to learn how to express the wish to win in socially acceptable ways – for some of us it is harder than others.  Children’s open and at times aggressive behavior in expressing this wish often comes too close to the feelings we ourselves have had to shut down or modify.  We worry that our children aren’t doing that.

Winning is more fun than losing, and very young children are still operating under the pleasure principle.  Growing up involves deferring immediate pleasure to achieve longer range goals.  The tools needed to accomplish this are acquired as part of development.  In particular, intelligence and evolving thought processes enable the ability to reason, and to make meaningful action possible.  You can figure out strategies to win!   

If you watch six or seven year olds playing a game, you will find them spending more time discussing and arguing about the rules than in playing the game.  The rules now have become very important – even though they may be changed with every play.    This is also the stage when children may be quick to report someone else who is not following the rules – a sign that they are still struggling within themselves about obeying rules.

These developmental changes take place as part of a greater interest in peers and new patterns of socialization.  It is appropriate that rules begin to loom larger at this time, because rules are a necessary part of social interaction.  We need rules not just to play games; but to cross the street without risking being hit by a car; to wait our turn when there is a line; and not to take property that doesn’t belong to us; among other things.

So of course it is part of our job as parents to teach children about rules.  The question, as always, is how we do that.  When we tell a young child in a judgmental way that he is cheating, we are imposing an adult concept that he is not yet able to fully understand or use appropriately.  What he gets from that is that he has done something bad without really understanding why the grownups think it is wrong.  The rule has gotten separated from its reason for being.

If instead we acknowledge that it is fun to win and that other people like to win, too, there is a better basis for helping a child understand that playing the game may mean losing as well as winning.  Rules are there to give everyone a fair chance.  But as parents, we need to remember that accepting that is a process that takes time and experience. 

If we are more accepting of our children’s wish to win, they may in the end be better able to accept losing.