There are different opinions on the question of how competitive you should be when playing board games with your children. On one end of the spectrum, there are parents who let their kids win every time, determined to protect their fragile souls from the crushing agony of defeat.
On the other end, there are those who shout “BOO-YAH! IN YOUR FACE, SUCKA!” as they advance ahead of their offspring in Monopoly Junior. Most mums and dads probably fall somewhere in the middle — they might go easy in the beginning, and then up their game as their young opponents become more skilled.
Nick Bentley, a game designer and soon-to-be dad, has given this topic a lot of thought. And he believes that if your goal is to motivate your child and help them get good at a game as quickly as possible, there is a specific process you should use, one that is rooted in neurobiology. It’s based on what’s known as a variable ratio schedule.
Here are the four steps, as Bentley shares on his website:
1. The first time you play a particular game, let the kid win.
2. Thereafter, let the kid win some of the time. 60 per cent of the time is good to start (you can dial it down slowly as the kid improves if you want).
3. Make the sequence of wins and losses as random as possible.
4. Critically, make the outcome as close as you can every time, especially when the kid loses. She should always feel like she barely lost.
Bentley, a former neurobiologist, explains the science behind it: When a child receives a reward (ie. winning the game) on only a certain percentage of attempts, and the interval between the rewards is unpredictable, this ensures each reward feels “maximally rewarding, and therefore maximally addictive,” he writes.
Variable ratio schedules are used in Las Vegas to keep you playing the slot machines — you always feel like you’re just about to win. They’re also used in just about every video game your kid is addicted to.
(Note that you can only use the variable ratio schedule process with games that have a strategy component. Some games for young children, such as Candy Land, are completely random.)
Board games are great for kids — they can help improve their logical reasoning, teach them how to detect patterns, and let them practice being a good sport. If your kids are having fun while playing with you, you probably don’t need a fancy process.
But if they seem discouraged, you might try adjusting your strategy to get them back into that sweet spot, that place where they keep telling themselves, “OK, just one more time. I know I can win.”