Family Poker?

Parents who had weathered multiple relocations and school changes came to see me to talk about their 5th grade son, Michael. Mom initially contacted me quite worried because Michael had been having significant trouble in his classes for weeks and was getting increasingly distant and disrespectful at hone. He had even refused to go to school for several days when I first received her call.

After talking we agreed that Michael was probably showing signs of stress stemming from the past few years of upheaval. I suggested several ways to lower tension for everyone. One idea was to play the card game “Spit.”

To quote Wikipedia, “The goal of “Spit”is to get rid of all your cards as quickly as possible. The players do not take turns – physical speed and alertness are required to play faster than your opponent.”

I thought a game like “Spit” would be useful for many reasons. It is lots of fun, very energizing and parents can control who wins. When a child is “down in the dumps” and feeling overwhelmed and/or disconnected active family fun can brighten spirits and relieve tension for everyone. When a young person gets to beat his or her parents in a game it can be especially uplifting, almost “making up for” hardships that have felt “unfair.”

“Spit” helped this family connect but after a few weeks the game understandably lost it luster. Dad and mom suggested trying out poker and Michael loved the idea. For the first time in quite a while they got to teach their son something that he was excited to learn. The family started playing and Michael caught on quickly. Mom and Dad still let him win but needed to do so less frequently as Michael’s confidence and general outlook improved.

When everyone played poker Michael watched less TV and would get off his “screens’ more easily. Also as the poker table was the homework and dinner table as well Mom and Dad didn’t have to call and cajol their son into the kitchen to start his school work or come to dinner. He was already in the place he needed to be!

They all were having a great time playing. Michael started wearing “shades” to look cool and to improve his bluffing strategies and mom and dad were having fun with each other (something they hadn’t gotten to do very often over this period).

Card games were not the only things this family did to get themselves on a good footing. Mom and dad agreed to stop arguing in front of their son. They also worked on their relationships with school staff in an effort to improve Michael’s grades and behavior but poker actually was an important part of their process.

2 months after I received the first worried phone call the teacher and parents are reporting a vast improvement. He is participating constructively in class, getting to school with fewer complaints and easier to live with at home. We are all hopeful that Michael’s middle school transition will go well.