The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Romper writer and educational psychologist Sarah Wheeler answers your questions about parenting with humor and humility — and without the guilt trips.
Dear Good Enough Parent,
I am really attached to this idea of having a family game night, but it never seems to work out. Everyone gets mad or leaves in a huff, or my kids are happy but I’m bored out of my mind. Is something wrong with us???
I am here to tell you, my friend, that the one thing that will almost always be a part of everyone's game night is frustration. Kids can be really, really bad losers. They lie and cheat. You might even get frustrated, because it turns out your dream game is not 100 rounds of fucking Connect Four. Or maybe you have one of those sophisticated children who enjoys Risk and Settlers of Catan, but, like me, you’d rather floss your eyeballs with barbed wire than spend an hour and a half reading the rules manual.
First, keep in mind: It's okay if people get upset. You can acknowledge that it’s hard not to win, that it’s natural to want to make up new rules to do better or have more fun. That Catan is not for everyone, (or, in my opinion, anyone). My neighbor, a youth pastor and mother to four now-grown children, once pointed out to me that for many kids, competing against their parents is also weird. Unless that’s your family culture (if it is, go for it!) most kids just see their parents as constantly on their side, and having that all flip around as soon as a deck of Sushi Go! cards are placed between you might be unnerving.
Second, there are some things you can do to take the edge off and make it more likely that your game night will be remotely enjoyable.
Before we get started with the how, take a second to think about the why of your family game night fantasy. Maybe you want to introduce a little laughter into your home. Maybe you miss the friendly competition that you used to have with your partner when you actually had time to take them on at Mario Galaxy. Or maybe you’d just like a few sacred minutes away from screens. Odds are your raison d'être of family game night is not "my entire family sits around a Monopoly board, letting others go first and being gracious losers and passersby will gaze through our window thinking ‘now that’s a happy family,’ and my own parents will get word of this and finally understand that they should have parented me with more joy and connection.” But if that is your goal, squash it now. That goal is impossible and you will only find disappointment in pursuing it.
In the end, just like there’s no one way to be a good parent, there is no one way to have family game night.
Once you’ve distilled the "why" down to something manageable, you can experiment with the “what.” The possibilities are endless. You could play family Truth or Dare, rather than a classic board game (but be prepared for your children to ask questions like “Mama, who do you have a crush on besides Dada?”). You could do a Crossword Puzzle together. Maybe you and your partner can get competitive on your own time, and let the kids play Connect Four all night while you cheer them on. And maybe it’s okay if family game night is mostly one big argument, cause hey, no one was texting and zero Robux were spent.
If your kids are different ages, or they or you are neurodivergent, your game night may require even more creative thinking. What if you play a round of Solitaire next to your child while they happily and repeatedly construct and destroy Jenga towers? Doesn't that achieve some potential game night goals: shared activity, screen-free, peaceful? Game night can just be that, I promise.
If you have kids at different levels, or if you yourself get bored of games that don't adequately challenge you (or vice versa), you can always add modifications to make things harder, easier, or more interesting. When I was a kid, we came up with something called “Very Sorry!” where you played the classic, mostly luck-based and generally boring-as-shit Sorry! game, but instead of playing the card at the top of the pile, each person chose from a set of cards in their hands (enter: strategy). Less-skilled players (usually, but not always, younger) got more cards to choose from. Maybe one player can win if they Connect Three, for instance, but grown-ups have to Connect Five. Close your eyes for five seconds before looking for a Set or a matching Spot It! Pair, but let them have at it right away. This lets you play at your best without thrashing your child over and over (although at 7, my kid already kicks my ass in a lot of games), or pretending to lose in order to avoid drama.
Finally, you might try cooperative games where the players team up and play against the game, and if you lose, you lose together. I know, I know, we aren’t all ready to turn our homes into a Quaker School circa 1972, but they have their benefits. Games like Mermaid Island (simple) and Forbidden Island (more complex) could be just what you all need to scratch the itch of playing a board game without pitting various family members against each other.
In the end, just like there’s no one way to be a good parent, there is no one way to have family game night. Maybe the experience you’re having is actually good enough, and you can return to it with a greater sense of acceptance for how hard it is to get several very different people to do one thing. Whether you take one of my suggestions, come up with your own workarounds, or drop it altogether, you and your family will be fine. Because we’re all just doing our best. Except me when I’m forced to play War, then I’m really phoning it in.
I want to answer your questions about the messy realities of parenting! Send me your questions at email@example.com.
Sarah writes Romper’s The Good Enough Parent series. She is an educational psychologist, neurodiversity consultant, and writer. You can subscribe to her newsletter, Momspreading, here. She lives in Oakland with her husband, two children, and cohousing community.
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