Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "Knees Tag"

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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