One evening this spring, my family spent dinnertime dissecting what my older son, Eli, calls his “recess problems.” The specific dilemma was whether, in a game of kickball, a kid could claim that because he’d fallen down when one of Eli’s teammates pegged him on his way to second base, he wasn’t “out.” Was this a legitimate plea for mercy? Or was it cheating, dressed up as a sympathy bid?
By the end of the conversation, my husband and I suspected the 8-year-old version of foul play, on a small scale. The kids on the other team had made up the “you’re safe if you fall down” rule midgame. They didn’t seem inclined to apply it uniformly—no one on Eli’s team tried to invoke it, and he didn’t think it would have flown if they had. Still, we were a bit uneasy about urging Eli on in his fight for the rule of law. He probably had justice on his side. But the more we talked, the more he kept stressing the letter of the law. At one point, he brought up the regulations for Major League Baseball. These, we gently pointed out, don’t really have a place in the second-grade recess game of kickball.
No one likes a cheater, for sure. But no one likes a stickler, either. What if your kid is the one who tends to wave the rule book while yelling “no fair”? Teaching kids about playing games is a subtle enterprise, when you stop to think about it. On the one hand, the point of a game is to win it. For some kids, the competition is itself a stumbling block—whether it’s Monopoly or kickball or soccer, they back away from contests that end with winners and losers. These kids don’t focus much on the rules; they’re not invested enough. But then there are the kids for whom competition is an almighty thrill. They’re not interested in just hitting a tennis ball around. They want to keep score. And once you’re doing that, whatever the setting, the rules do matter. To break or bend them is to take advantage. And so it can be perfectly called for to object to cheating.
The problem is that the point of playing games isn’t only to win, most of the time. It’s also to hang out with friends, have a good time, while away a sunny or rainy afternoon. Viewed through that lens, it’s important to tolerate a little rule bending. Did the dice fly off the board? OK, roll them again. Game playing takes a lot of that kind of compromise and improvisation. We want kids to care, sure, but not so much that they send the board flying when there’s a question about whether doubles means roll again. It’s a lot to expect for kids to master all the nuances, to know when to let a stolen base go during a social kickball game, and when to insist on recording the out.
Recess is a real petri dish because for the most part, at least at Eli’s school, the kids are on their own. The adults on the playground are there to make sure no one gets his head bashed in, not to set the kickball rules or run the game. This is the sort of learning opportunity I know I am supposed to welcome. And I do. But it also gives kids license to bully and manipulate one another. Over the course of a year of second-grade recesses, a pattern emerged. The dozen or so athletically minded boys (and very occasional girl) would get a game of kickball or football or wall-ball going. They’d play for a few weeks. And then the thing would break down, because one team had mysteriously been stacked with the good players or because no one could agree about the rules for stealing a base. (This, I’m told by adults who remember the game well, is a perennial kickball dilemma.) For a few days or a week, the boys dispersed. Eli found the no-game periods frustrating, but to me the break seemed like a way to diffuse tension.
When the game heated up again and disputes broke out, we tried to counsel Eli to play fairly without demanding that everyone else play exactly to his specification of fairness. It remains a tall order. Last week, I watched him play a summer game of Monopoly with two friends. In a previous round, they’d agreed that you’d get $50 if you rolled snake eyes. But in this game, when one of the other kids rolled snake eyes, he decided it meant you got to pick up one of each Monopoly bill ($686 in total, I believe). Eli protested. Loudly. The other kids said that this was the first snake-eyes roll of the game and agreed to change the rules for everyone going forward. Eli kept protesting. I told him to pipe down. He was right, but only sort of, and not enough to insist. I wanted to curb his stickler impulses. After muttering about fairness for a minute, he simmered down, and the game kept going. An especially desirable outcome, since it was pouring outside.
This week, Eli and his younger brother Simon are going to a small camp in Vermont that stresses creative play. There’s kick the can and capture the flag, but the rules bend a bit for the younger kids, and it’s easier than usual for everyone to get out of jail. The counselors play, which makes for a lot less fighting. Eli says he prefers the argument and competition of recess or, even better, league soccer. And I see his point and a place for that, too. Maybe the real goal of teaching kids to play games is to give them a chance to wrestle with their own extreme inclinations, whether weasel-like or rigid in nature. The cheaters have to learn to play fair, and the sticklers have to figure out when to let a few things slide, for the sake of the game.