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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Knees Tag

I have a suspicion that, much as the proper kinds of laziness, impatience and hubris are virtues in a programmer, so too the proper kinds of laziness, impatience, and selfishness are virtues in a parent.

Or that's what I tell myself, anyway.

Some parents may insist that their children dress and feed themselves out of a dutiful, considered commitment to nurturing their young ones' independence. I do it because I am damned if I am going to get out of my chair to pour yet another bowl of corn flakes (it is all corn flakes all the time around here lately -- or would be, if the kids had their way. Oh, the haggling over how many teaspoons of sugar!)

Similarly, many parents force themselves to play whatever games their kids want to play. You may hate Candyland, goes the theory, but if the little dears are obsessed with it, then it is probably developmentally critical for them to rehearse those card-drawing and figurine-advancing skills, and you should endure hours of Candyland-based togetherness with a happy smile.

Not me. I am unwilling to have pretend fun with my kids. If we are going to play something, then it's going have to be fun for me too. And I don't mean it would be fun for me if I were more enlightened, easygoing, and wise. No, I mean fun for the actual me: fiercely competitive, intellectually demanding, rules-lawyering, irritated by luck, and allergic to bad game design.

I like to think, though, that in this case selfishness is a virtue, because the result of it is that I love playing with my kids. I can't wait to go out and play with them. Now, we do spend an awful lot of time negotiating, tinkering with the rules, trying to figure out how to make it fun for everyone. Sometimes these negotiations break down into temper tantrums, it is true. Sometimes it is even the kids having the temper tantrums. I have also gone overboard at times and discovered that they were just humoring me (which isn't the point either). But all in all I think it's worth it. I think there's something very satisfying to kids in playing with an adult who is having as much fun as they are.

So as the kids grow up and their interests vary and we get bored with things, our game time becomes a constant exercise in the design of new games -- in particular, new ways to balance the playing field so that we are evenly matched.

Today we came up with two new games. One involved pillow figthing on the bed in which I had to be flat on my back, fighting upward. The other one was Knees Tag.

Knees Tag
You will need:
Some adults and some children. A large open space. The players may be on foot, or wearing rollerblades.

The game is a variation on Freeze Tag. All adults are on one team and all children are on the other team. Everyone is simultaneously "it".

If a child tags an adult, the adult is frozen in place until freed by another adult, or a child overcome with sympathy for their plight.

A child can be similarly frozen but only if tagged by an adult on the front of the child's knee (for instance, on the knee pad of a rollerblading child wearing knee pads), and is similarly liberated.

Note that, since everyone is simultaneously "it", this means adults must tag the children's knees while avoiding getting tagged themselves.

I played this all afternoon against Aviva and Noah. It would have helped to have another adult, though they were very generous about unfreezing me.

It is very challenging, running backwards while avoiding being tagged while trying to tag the knee pad of a seven-year old who is rollerblading rapidly toward you.

Posted by benrosen at September 27, 2008 11:07 PM | Up to blog

Your version of "fun" sounds excruciatingly exhausting.

Posted by: Haddayr at September 28, 2008 04:59 PM

I'm not a parent, but it seems to me that what you describe as the proper kind of selfishness only works because there's an significant overlap between what you consider fun and what your kids consider fun. If there weren't, such an attitude might mean you simply wouldn't play with your kids until they were many years older. What if, for example, you only liked playing chess against worthy opponents?

Posted by: Ted at September 28, 2008 07:35 PM

Haddayr: Ha! This from the dancing queen of Ratbastard Karaoke Night!

Ted: Well, this is true. And it's possible I overstate the case slightly for comic effect. It's also worth noting that I do not expect all my interactions with my kids to be fun. When they were colicky infants, I did not refuse to carry them around for hours singing lullabies because it was insufficiently fun.

My thesis, though, is not that selfishness is a virtue overriding all others (any more than laziness is in a programmer). It's that it is potentially a virtue in the right circumstances.

And just as there's an intended irony in Larry Wall's list of programmer virtues -- because, of course, it is his lazy, impatient, hubristic programmers who take the time to carefully implement and thoroughly debug tools used by the rest of us -- there's a twist here, obviously, in what I mean by selfish. Just as lazy programmers do smart work now to avoid doing dumb work later, the kind of selfishness I mean is the one that makes you work to reach out toward others, not shun them.

One could respond to Larry Wall by saying that if programmers were sufficiently lazy, they would just not do anything at all, instead of implementing tools (especially on a volunteer open source project like Perl!) Well, sure. But that's not the right kind of laziness. If you are going to be a Perl hacker, your laziness is only good insofar as it has you writing better code. By analogy, if you are going to be a parent, parenting selfishness is only good insofar as it has you having more fun with your kids.

The point of programming laziness is to have you think harder about what you're doing -- isn't there any way I could automate this?. The same is true of parenting selfishness. The point is that if you don't settle for just enduring the chore of playing with your kids (analogous to enduring some dull manual copy-pasting operation for the Perl programmer), if you think hard about it, you are likely to find some superfair, win-win solution in which not only are you actually having fun, your kids are having more fun.

It is hard to imagine someone who only likes playing chess against worthy opponents if you parse that as meaning "that is the only thing that they like" -- that is, they don't like movies, hugs, chocolate, wrestling, punk music, walking in rainstorms, or ANYTHING ELSE. But let us postulate such a hedonistically impoverished person. Still, we can ask: well, but is your seven year old a worthy opponent if you start the game without a queen? Without a queen and a rook? With only a king and your pawns?

You can, of course, postulate someone who only likes playing proper chess with no handicap against worthy opponents.... and likes nothing else in the world. In that case I agree that this method will not work well for them. I would however submit that in general there is some intersection between what you like and what your kids like... and so it just becomes a game design problem to find it.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 29, 2008 02:41 PM

Parenting as a game design problem. I love it.

Posted by: Jeanne at September 29, 2008 05:00 PM

But stated that broadly, what you're describing doesn't seem all that different than playing Candyland. I don't think most parents leave the game and toy-buying decisions entirely up to the whims of their children. If they play Candyland with their kids, it's because the pleasure they get from seeing their kids having fun with a game that they themselves loved as children outweighs the fact that Candyland is no longer very challenging to them. The fact that you've arrived at Knees Tag as your solution just reflects your particular interests, not that you were using a fundamentally different algorithm.

To put it another way, do you enjoy Knees Tag so much that if you didn't have children, you'd find a seven-year-old in your neighborhood to play it with?

Posted by: Ted at September 30, 2008 01:08 AM

There is of course a mixture of both satisfactions, but it's possible to distinguish between the satisfaction of seeing your kids have fun, and whether you are actually having fun -- intrinsically -- yourself.

Similarly, if you go with good friends to a mediocre movie, you enjoy the company but not the movie. If you go with good friends to a great movie, you enjoy both. Me, I have so little time for movies, I do not in fact ever go alone to movies, even great ones. But I can still distinguish between seeing a great movie with Esther and seeing a crap one.

I wouldn't seek out a random seven year old, or for that matter a random adult, for any given recreational activity, no matter how fun. If I were going to, though, Knees Tag would be high on the list. Let us postulate a thought experiment in which Esther and the kids are out of town and I have wandered down to the schoolyard on Sunday to get some exercise and there are two pick-up games going on: one of basketball with thirty-year-olds and one of Knees Tag with a mix of rollerblading seven-year-olds and adults. I would say that it would be a toss-up (decided by, for instance, if I knew any of the participants). And if it was adult baseball vs. mixed-age Knees Tag, Knees Tag would win hands down.

However, it is perfectly possible to imagine an adult for whom playing Candyland is in and of itself satisfying, for reasons of nostalgia or the soothing, meditative ritual of moving the pieces, or for the esthetics of the backstory and design, in addition to the pleasure of seeing their kids have fun. In which case, yes, the distinction would totally have to do with the difference in preferences and interests between that adult and me.

However, as a parent, there is a constant temptation to do things which are fun for your kids and which you are gritting your teeth and putting up with. The fact that they enjoy it (and demand it) is a powerful pull. I mean, it's not actually that I've never played Candyland with them. I have. And I hate Candyland.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 30, 2008 07:24 AM

Just wanted to say hello... a friend (In this case, Ellen Kushner) pointed us at your entry about Rosh Hashanah and Pierre - which she very correctly figured we would love. What I've come away with in
reading that and a few other entries, are that I
think your family and ours might get along really well, and given the distance, I'll probably have to make do with keeping on reading.... which I fully intend to do. We are allergic to bad games in this house too (though we do put up with them some of the time).. we've made a hobby out of finding real boardgames to teach our son... most of which, of course, are not made in the US... but thats a whole other rant....

Posted by: Jessica at October 5, 2008 12:02 AM

Hi Jessica! I am delighted you stopped by and that you liked the Pierre thing.

What board games do you like? Rant away... :-)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 6, 2008 10:09 PM
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