A man and a boy sit together on the floor, with a board game spread out between them. I'm the one on the left, the fellow with mostly-whole head of hair. The little guy I'm playing Candyland with is my oldest son, who's now 22. (Yes, this was a “few” years ago. Let's just leave it there and go on.)
Lean in. Look close. We're having fun, right? After all, we're playing together.
No, not exactly. My son is playing and having fun, but I'm busily getting annoyed. (Note the prune-shaped look of frustration slithering across my face.)
Oh, oh – here comes the part I wanted you to see. I'm about to utter a classic Awful Dad Line. You ready?
“No, no. Stop! You're not doing it right!”
Oh yeah, I said it. In fact, I said it a lot. There I'd be, playing a game with my kids, listening to their laughter and enjoying their company. But was I focused on that? No! I was making sure they played the game “right” by the rules.
It turns out that things like following the rules and taking turns are hard ideas for little ones to grasp. Kids only start to understand that stuff when they're about six. Most younger kids simply can't process it. They don't have the thinking skills yet.
That's why my Awful Dad Line was so awful. I was focused on the wrong thing. I missed the magic of the moment.
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 make that happen. It's automatic.
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. Just play.
Here's the one rule you need remember, Dad: Fun always comes first. Everything else is details. Change the rules. Ditch the rules. Forget the rules. You bought the game. It's yours now, and you can play it however you want to. So there.
Bottom line: If you're having fun with your kids, then you're doing it right.
So, ready to play?