I have had many parents ask me this question when they play board games with their children:
"Am I bad parent if I allow my kids to change the game rules all the time while we play?"
"What should I do if my kids want to change the game rules?"
This behavior is so common, that nearly all of the children I work with have at one point requested to change board game rules during the game. Although the frequency of requests varies, I have experienced it enough to be an expert on how to respond. Before I discuss what I share with my parents, let's first look at why children want to change the game rules in the first place.
Why do children want to change the game rules?
The beauty of board games is it instantly provides goals for players to achieve in the game's unique context. The rules exist to create challenges, and encourage players' problem solving and communication to flourish.
Children in general, have an innate need to be competent and exercise mastery of tasks. Therefore, when they play a board game, this innate need motivates them achieve the goals and win the game. They will be focused on learning how the game works and the reward is the exhilarating sense of victory.
Competence and mastery are sometimes so important to children, they may prioritize it over a social or learning experience. Meaning for some children, achieving victory in games is more valued then playing fairly.
This is why requests to modify game rules, bending the game rules or cheating will happen. Imagine, if rules are perceived to be barriers to victory, wouldn't it make sense to try to manipulate or remove the barriers?
I like to view children's request to changing game rules is a reflection of their needs (competency, mastery) and their creative process of problem solving.
However, this doesn't mean they should change game rules at their complete will.
Why game rules are important
Board games provide a unique context for players to operate in, while the rules provide the expected conduct in the game. Rules are like the social norms and laws of real life as they are important in governing fairness and providing guidance to civility.
It is great practice for children to be able to understand and follow game rules as they learn how to operate within certain boundaries. And when children have to work within certain boundaries, they are more likely to use their creativity and problem solving skills.
How else have humans been able to put a person on the moon given the limits of gravity and outer space conditions?
In addition, game rules provide opportunities for children to learn how to manage their emotions. Game rules can elicit a lot of uncomfortable emotions like frustration, anger, and grief. Rules set limits and boundaries, and we all know how children are experts at testing limits!
Within these limits, children learn how to internally balance what they want and what they can actually do. For example, if they want to achieve victory in the game, it has to be in the conditions set by the rules. Therefore, they will need to manage their emotions so they can think clearly and work towards their goals in the game.
Overall, board game rules simulate real life rules and encourages the use of creativity, problem solving skills and regulating emotions.
Game rules need to be followed
When I work directly with children or consult with parents, my general rule to requests on changing game rules during games is a firm "we have to follow the rules."
It can be difficult to stay firm, so I remind myself of five important reasons on not allowing game rule changes.
It is important for children to understand rules need to be respected and cannot change on the whim.
Maintaining the game rules will encourage the children to use more creativity and problem solving to work with the rules instead of against them.
Once children are familiar with original rules of the game, they will feel more confident and competent when they play with others.
Most game rule change requests during the game may make it less challenging, allow advantages for selected players and may not be fair for other players.
Establish the boundaries between the adult facilitator and children.
Despite a few groans and protests, children generally respond well to enforced rules. It is because establishing rules and boundaries for children provides them the defined space to operate in. Meaning it creates certainty and stability for them.
Exploring, acknowledging and enforcing
When requests to change game rules are first made, my immediate response is exploration. I first inquire why they want the rules to change, and what the changes will look like. Once I understand their reasons, I make sure to acknowledge them. And then gently reinforce the original game rules.
Explore - "I'm curious, how come you want to change this rule?", "How would you like to change it?"
Acknowledge - "That sounds like an interesting rule change.", "That's creative of you to come up with this new rule and it will probably help us win faster."
Enforce - "However, we agreed to play with the original rules, it is important to finish what we started. And let's see what challenge this will give us."
I do this to primarily understand their thought process so it makes it easier to enforce the game rules. This same approach can be used for enforcing real life rules and limits too.
Although I am firm on upholding game rules during the game, I do encourage children to create completely new rules or modify existing rules before or after the game. I especially encourage it when children come up with creative alternate ways to play, or if the new rules create learning opportunities.
An example of learning opportunity in modifying game rules for children is they can learn the mechanics of the rules. Each modification can change the pacing, challenge and even fairness of the game. When children are able to experience the results of their impact, they are able to better understand how rules work.
There are teachable moments in every experience, and part of our work as parents or professionals, is to identify them and guide our children through it.
Proper use of new and modified rules
When you allow children to create new or modify rules, only apply them to a new game. Here are a few guidelines on how to properly encourage and implement new and modified rules:
Inform children that they can use new and modified rules in a separate new game.
Encourage children to write down the new rules as it comes to mind during the game so they don't forget, regardless of how fair or unfair it is.
Organize the new and modified rules, work together to see which ones to try.
Facilitate a new game with new rules.
Review similarities and differences of game experience after the game.
If viable variations to play the game are discovered, encourage children to write down the new rules for future replay value.
The best overall practice is to enforce the game rules and not allow any modification once the game has started. This reinforces the message that rules are to be respected. The benefits are it will encourage children to be creative, use problem solving skills and manage their uncomfortable emotions. However, do create space for children to come up with new rules or modify existing ones to use for additional learning experiences!
What do you think? What do you do when your kids request to change the game rules?
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Play Attune is created by William, a child and family psychotherapist with extensive experience working with families in various settings. We recently launched in the summer of 2018 and we invite you to join us on learning more and contributing to shape our content!