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The more things change, the more they stay the same; and so it is with the games children play. From Dares and Catch to Tok-Tokkie, it’s all about restoring power to the children.

A recent outing made me think a little deeper about the games children play. A few days back, we – a few adults and a whole bunch of children – went for supper to a shopping mall. Naturally, the children, aged between five and nine, took off to circumnavigate the shopping centre at frantic, hamster-like speeds. Round and round they went. I wanted to put out little bowls of water for them and some straw.
“Why didn’t you play catch-catch?” my son asked, afterwards. “Adults like to have a nice glass of wine and eat dinner while talking. It’s our idea of catch-catch.”
It turns out the children hadn’t only run around like demented rodents, they had also played a version of that childhood game that has stood the test of time: Dares. Just one of the games children like to play.
“We made Anthony sit on the dustbin and pretend he was on the toilet,” my son explained. “He had to ask somebody who walked past for toilet paper.” “Wonderful for everybody, I’m sure. And what about you?”  “I had to go up to a stranger and ask where the toilet was. I went up to this person and said, ‘Excuse me, Ma’am, where’s the bathroom?’” “And…?” At least he’d asked politely.
“The person said: ‘One, I’m not a woman but a man. And two, ask security, if you want to find the bathroom’.”
Serves him right, the young whippersnapper, I thought. Nobody wants to be approached by a roving mass of giggling small boys clearly out for a laugh at your expense. But, then I remembered the excitement of these childhood games, particularly the ones that involved disrupting the adult status quo.
Find out the valuable lessons children can gain from playing poker with matchsticks.

Back in the day

I’m thinking not only of Dare but also Tok-Tokkie, now apparently renamed to Ding Dong Ditch. Remember that childhood game? You’d ring the doorbell of some unsuspecting neighbour and then run away in a flurry of nerves and daring before anyone came to the door. Of course it must have been infuriating for the adults to have their peaceful Sunday afternoons constantly interrupted, but it was fun. I even sustained my only childhood injury, a twisted ankle, playing this game – certainly worth it.
Whereas Pokemon might be here today but gone tomorrow in favour of the next hot, new craze, games that go a bit deeper – that are in essence mind games – seem destined to stay the distance. So what is it about Tok-Tokkie or Dare (which is upgraded to Truth or Dare as one hits adolescence) that makes these games children play stick around, despite the pull of the latest iPad game?
As mentioned, these games are disruptors: they return power to children. If there’s one thing that unites children across time and geography, it’s a sense of powerlessness in the face of a (largely incomprehensible) external world. These games invert the status quo: children are in charge, and they’re making up the rules. This is obviously intoxicating, in part because it only lasts a short while before everything returns to how it should be.

Ages and stages

Perhaps there’s another reason. The famous psychologist Erik Erikson divides a person’s life, from infancy to death, into eight life stages. It’s both gratifying and slightly depressing to think of oneself moving through this conveyor belt of life. I’m imagining here a sort of giant sushi belt where the offerings keep shifting as I age. I’ve definitely passed the delicious California rolls with their fresh avocado and salmon and am heading into more unknown territory, sort of translucent eel in sticky rice. Anyway, let’s not get distracted. I think that when games mirror the psychological challenge of specific life stages they have particular resonance.
Between the ages of five and 12, primary school children are facing the psychological crisis of industry versus inferiority, claims Erikson. They’re asking: “Can I make it in the world of people and things? Am I competent?” Imagine, then, the appeal of games that set them challenges, that make them create a situation out of nothing, as in the case of Dares, and then get others on board their version of reality. It’s psychologically compelling.
So, next time a child rings your doorbell at four on a Sunday afternoon (just as you’ve drifted off for an afternoon nap) or asks you for toilet paper in the middle of the mall, remember these small disruptors are playing out their specific psychological challenges. Don’t worry, you get your psychological challenges as well. The last one we apparently face, says Erikson, is whether we’ve achieved wisdom, which apparently entails answering this question: Is it okay to have been me? That’s is going to be a tough question to answer, but maybe there are some games we can think up in our dotage to get our minds around it.

Lisa Lazarus