One of the qualities I love most about my family is our ability to find a way to play no matter where we’re at.
As children, my cousins and I spent our childhoods making up games and activities like ball tag, escape in the dark, and of course the combination of the two, ball tag in the dark! (A little hint for you, playing running games in the dark is not recommended for the safety of your feet!) We played kickball and softball at Gramway field (aka, our grandma’s backyard) and developed obstacle courses which only one time resulted in a broken horse collar mirror when my foot accidentally landed smack dab in the middle of the mirror! (FYI…it was totally my brother’s fault!)
As adults, my cousins and I—now in our late 20s and early 30s—continue this habit whenever we get together. The best game we’ve ever played as adults? Machine Gun Capture the Flag! This is an epic extension of Capture the Flag in which you have to save the stuffed animal being held hostage by the guard without getting shot by the guard, who just happens to be holding a machine gun, and who sometimes just happens to have sniper-like aim! But don’t worry, the machine gun in this game is a Nerf gun, so everyone’s safe!
Yeah, we love to play games, so it was no surprise to me that the last time we all got together as a family, we quickly found a way to find some way to play. But this time, it wasn’t just us. This time, there were kids who wanted to play too.
We’re mature and responsible; we can let other kids play in our games, too, even though we know it will take some of the fun out of it! So we set up the teams and took our spots. But there’s one thing that as adults, we totally forgot to do…
We forgot to teach the kids the rules of the game!
At first, I didn’t even think about it. But as we played, I started to notice that the adults had a TON of previous knowledge that helped them to know exactly what to do during this game, yet most of the kids looked like they were wandering around in a foreign country without a map!
What happened when there were three outs? The adults started to switch sides. What did the kids do? They clung to their bases, watching us all closely. Some of them stepped off of their bases to join the field, only to run to the next base as soon as the opposing team kicked their first ball!
What happened when they were base runners and someone caught the ball? The adults knew that they needed to stay on their bases. But the kids didn’t know this rule; they just kept on running.
From our perspective, the kids just weren’t getting it. They didn’t know the rules and it was frustrating for us, making our job difficult and affecting our fun. But from the kids’ perspectives, we must have seemed like the meanest people on earth!
We told them they were out almost every time they kicked and we forced them to leave the base; this hardly ever happened to us.
We yelled at them to run when the ball was kicked, even if it meant that they were going to get out. And then we yelled at them to run back to the base when it was caught. It must have been so confusing for them!
Why didn’t we just sit down for a few minutes with them before the game and talk about the rules? The best answer that I can come up with is that as adults, we’re too busy for things like that. We’ve got to always be on the run, always be getting something else done, that we just don’t have time to stop, think and plan ahead for what might be helpful to make experiences better for kids
Luckily for everyone involved in this game, our lack of due diligence in teaching the rules didn’t result in any major issues. Sure there were a few tears when kids got out because they didn’t run, and because they did run! There were times when the kids were just certain that they didn’t get “out” because they didn’t have the slightest concept of what “out” meant, so they’d cry for a few moments as the pleaded their case. But overall, most of the kids fared pretty well.
But as I think about this example in the bigger picture, there are definitely times when our lack of helping to prep kids for new situations can cause a lot of problems, for us and for them.
When we go somewhere, we (hopefully) have years of experience telling us what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is unacceptable. Kids don’t. Even if they’ve experienced the event before, it is still a relatively new situation to them (at least from their memory). To us, their behavior might make us say, “What were you thinking?” But to them, their behavior seems perfectly normal. To them, it’s like trying to figure out the social norms and language of a new culture on the first day they’ve ever met someone from that culture. That’s harder than we give them credit for!
Now I’m not here to judge, especially because I just admitted to all of you that I’m just as guilty as you at forgetting to help kids to understand what’s about to happen before it happens! We all get busy and we slip away from doing what we know kids need because, well, life gets in the way.
But something that I learned during this process is that sometimes, I need to take a step back and ask myself, “Is this child’s behavior somehow my fault? Did I do something—or forget to do something—that is causing this?” And if I can answer “Yes!” (for example, “Oh yeah, I forgot to share the rules of this game and that’s why they’re all looking at us with the deer-in-the-headlights look!) then this is the perfect time for me to pause and think about what I can do to make the situation better—for the child and for me!
Did I forget to tell her that the library is a quiet place where we use inside voices? If my answer is yes, is it fair to get upset with her when she squeals excitedly because they have a whole display of Princess Sofia books?
Did I forget to teach him that when we go to someone else’s birthday party, it is customary for that person to open the presents, not him? If I didn’t, is it fair for me to get mad at him and feel like he’s being selfish?
Have I taught her that it’s rude to walk into someone’s house and raid their refrigerator? If I haven’t, can I judge her for her poor boundaries?
I find that I’m often in a situation in which I could have done better to help prepare kids for what was about to come. And the good thing is that if we’ve failed in the beginning, we can still salvage what’s left of the experience and make it better.
We may have failed as adults before the kickball game started, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t teach them as we went along. And we did. And it got way better the more guidance and feedback we provided.
At the beginning of the game, I gave no direction to a kid on first base. But half-way through the game, I prefaced every kick with, “Ok, if someone catches the ball, stop and run back to first. If not, you gotta run to the next base ok?” The kids felt more confident and more capable. They felt like they were more a part of the game, instead of foreigners trying to figure out how to fit into our world.
They had more fun. And so did we!