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It is rare in our culture when any activity can capture the interest of and entertain both youth and adults, as I believe is the case in this very sophisticated game of obfuscation, divination, and the opportunity to share a laugh or two as well.  The game "Balderdash", the trademarked version of the game I first played as "Dictionary", is just such an activity, a simple parlor game yet a very sophisticated exercise in word-smithing in the context of cultural awareness.  Given that, it is still a game that a sharp pre-teen or older youth can master and go toe to toe with adults.  My thirteen-year-old niece insists that we play the game at every family party, and with seven to ten of us participating, we have had a number of memorable sessions.

The basic game of "Dictionary" as I know it is played with a copy of a good dictionary in your shared language (English for us), plus pen/pencil and paper for everyone to write on.  Each player takes there turn looking up a word that no one in the group has heard of before, calling the word out to the group and then writing the dictionary definition on a slip of paper.  Everyone else then makes up a definition for the word that they think sounds plausible and writes that definition on a slip of paper.  Then the person that picked the word reads all the definitions including the real one randomly mixed in.  Everyone then picks which definition they think is the real one.  Finally the writer of each bogus definition is revealed culminating with the real one.

The dictionary, writing instruments and paper is all you really need to play the game.  The only reason to purchase the "Balderdash" version is for the deck of cards with hundreds of obscure words and their definitions, plus some other categories – obscure movie titles, organization initials, and more – so you don’t need to go through the exercise of finding your own oddball words.  Particularly for the younger players, it makes finding a fun word that no one knows much easier and quicker.  And I also recommend that you forget about keeping any kind of score.  Who is better or worse at this exercise is totally not the point and just diminishes from the group experience, which in my mind is about building a shared cultural awareness between youth and adults.

So much of what I see as the toxic remnants of patriarchal culture and its pecking order are tied up in the conventional wisdom that youth are incapable of understanding the nuances of the institutions and protocols of the adult world.  Youth are just "children" (that oft-used epithet) and therefore incapable of understanding how adults communicate with each other within the formal conventions of the "real" world.  The young person with their parent on "take your daughter to work day" tends to stick out like a sore thumb in many work places, looking and usually feeling like they definitely don’t belong.

The syntax and wording of dictionary definitions is one of those arcane protocols of formal "adult" communication.  When pre-teen and younger teen youth first play Dictionary or Balderdash, their first attempts at faux definitions tend to not be worded quite right or are too simplistically generic and are easily distinguished as clumsy imposters.  But in the course of one or two sessions of the game, playing just a handful of rounds in each alongside adults, I watch them quickly master the language of the definition and the cultural acumen to craft one that can fool the most intellectual adult.  And what a sense of palpable accomplishment they feel when an adult is fooled and picks their definition as the real one!

Another skill you quickly develop playing the game is identifying the word-smithing style of each of the players, and for example, guessing that that definition was probably thought up by your Uncle Craig.  Parsing written words to try to divine another player’s style is an exercise that tends to foster in the game that sense of a circle of equals, acknowledging and appreciating each other in turn.  Any such circle of equals that includes both youth and adults, in my mind challenges the patriarchal mythology of that pecking order.  

Perhaps I’m trying to build a mountain out of a molehill here, but I really do believe that cultural expectations are either reinforced or challenged by every interaction between people and no more so when adults and youth sit down together in the context of peers.  With most of our workplaces, worship services and even parlor games designed or presumed to be adults-only, I think we do a poor job giving our youth the venues to experience holding their own as peers in a circle of adults.  

We instead rely inordinately on formal institutions, like school, to instruct our youth on how to be sophisticated while keeping them cloistered away from an adult world they are presumed to be incompatible with until obtaining the age of majority and being properly trained along the way.  And most schools with their same-age segregation, keep twelve-year-olds spending most of the prime of their "work days" packed in with other twelve-year-olds in a setting where they have no opportunity to sit in a circle of equals or peers with adults, seems to me like such a deprivation after watching these sessions of Balderdash.

Perhaps one of the most important offerings of that rare "democratic school", where youth are encouraged and expected to participate in school governance alongside the adult staff, is just this opportunity to create venues where those youth and adults can sit down in a circle of peers and discuss and resolve an issue that impacts all of them.  We seem to get so focused on the content of our formal education that we tend to forget some of the maybe more informal processes of learning.

Originally posted to leftyparent on Sun Jul 12, 2009 at 04:52 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (4+ / 0-)

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles

    by leftyparent on Sun Jul 12, 2009 at 04:52:23 PM PDT

    •  Thanks - this is, indeed, a great game (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dejavu, maybeeso in michigan, Orinoco

      for gatherings of young and old. Another we used to enjoy is the story game. Each person in the circle writes a sentence that starts a story and passes it to a neighbor. The next person sees that sentence and writes a followup sentence - then folds over the original sentence so only the second is visible. The third person writes a sentence to follow the second, and refolds the paper so the second is hidden and only the third is visible, etc.

      I still remember this brilliant opener and its followup from about 1970:

      "There were fewer trees than elves, so some had to stand."

      "But to stand means to cast your lap to the ungrateful ground."

      Our system of law is premised on the idea that an unfettered government - rather than criminals - is the greatest danger to our lives and liberty.

      by pixxer on Mon Jul 13, 2009 at 08:39:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I agree. This is a great interaction that is (0+ / 0-)

    surprisingly accessible to younger people.  Strategy can well compensate for raw knowledge, and the interplay brings everyone together.

    •  Appreciate the second on my take on this... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Was not sure if I was reading too much into this.  Think there is an important dynamic in this game with ten people ages 12 to 80+ sitting in a circle in the living room playing this game and all enjoying it and acknowledging each other.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Sun Jul 12, 2009 at 10:23:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well, for a third take (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        dejavu, maybeeso in michigan, yaque

        some of the best rounded and most solidly grounded kids I know are Faire Brats -- kids whose parents work the Renaissance Faires and spend eight to ten weekends over the course of a couple of a months playing dress-up and make-believe with a group of people ranging in age from babes-in-arms to grandfathers.

        I think you're on to something.

        "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government is incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

        by Orinoco on Mon Jul 13, 2009 at 09:17:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  This explains why (0+ / 0-)

    I tended to avoid people my own age as I grew up. Adults had better vocabularies and more complex interests. Because our society is structured to help people of like minds and interests find one another, there tends to be a drift toward age segregation too.

    Lots to like about this diary. Very thoughtful insights.

    Every day's another chance to stick it to The Man. - dls.

    by The Raven on Sun Jul 12, 2009 at 05:15:07 PM PDT

  •  Balderdash is the one game I can play with my (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    maybeeso in michigan, Orinoco, jrfrog

    extremely competitive, crossword puzzle fan of a husband -- and win!  I do read a lot, but the ability to bluff helps here.  We've played this game often with friends, and camping trips with the Sierra Club.  It is a fun game that all can play.

  •  I grew up playing dictionary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dejavu, maybeeso in michigan, Orinoco

    It was a riot. The younger kids usually had the most creative responses.

    I spent the summers of my youth on Orr's Island, Maine and I have very fond memories of rainy days spent with large groups playing dictionary.

    Never realized until I was an adult, how much I was learning along the way.

  •  BBC tv show called 'call my bluff' (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dejavu, maybeeso in michigan

    was something along these lines. Used to love watching it when I was home sick from school.

  •  This is a terrific diary, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dejavu, maybeeso in michigan

    absolutely correct about the cultural/sociological impact this game has on child/adult relationships.  I was an only child, and my parents spoke to me as an adult, included me in most of their activities and read to me from adult books (history, poetry, biography) and newspapers.  Then we discussed what we had read.  Most of my friends lived in homes that practiced the adage "children should be seen and not heard."  I never felt like I had missed anything by not having brothers and sisters.

    I'm sorry I arrived at the diary too late to recommend it.  I'm certainly glad it was rescued.

    "In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican." - H. L. Mencken

    by SueDe on Mon Jul 13, 2009 at 10:48:03 PM PDT

  •  Great diary. I never ran across Dictionary much (0+ / 0-)

    less Balderdash.  Sounds like something my g'daughters could stand up to the adults around here.
    We have a birthday coming up.  Thanks for Balderdash one gift taken care of. does get pretty hard at times.

    Congratulations, Senator Franken, You're great enough, and elected enough, and doggone it, people like you.

    by maybeeso in michigan on Tue Jul 14, 2009 at 06:08:14 AM PDT

    •  Cool... the gift of multi-generational connection (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      maybeeso in michigan

      what could be better!  Glad to help with the suggestion!

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Wed Jul 15, 2009 at 06:59:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  We are a three generation household. it fits. (0+ / 0-)

        Dominos also work for math.  Thanks again.

        Congratulations, Senator Franken, You're great enough, and elected enough, and doggone it, people like you.

        by maybeeso in michigan on Wed Jul 15, 2009 at 07:59:45 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I've never been much of a dominos... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          maybeeso in michigan

          player.  Where is the math?  In the probabilities of what tile to play?

          Cooper Zale Los Angeles

          by leftyparent on Thu Jul 16, 2009 at 07:08:44 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  You have to be able to figure out if any of your (0+ / 0-)

            dominos would make the total of the ends add up to a multiple of five.  

            We let anyone younger then 9 play with dominos face up to get help from one anyone playing.  

            God help anyone playing a domino makeing a score from telling the kid to play the wrong domino---not the best for the kid's scoring.

            Sorry for the compound, complex incoherent sentences. I've done that a lot this morning....

            you shoulda seen this before I cleaned it up

            Congratulations, Senator Franken, You're great enough, and elected enough, and doggone it, people like you.

            by maybeeso in michigan on Fri Jul 17, 2009 at 08:33:17 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Thanks for the explanation... (0+ / 0-)

              In all my years of hearing about or occasionally playing dominos I did not know that that was one of the rules!  Or are you playing some variant that is not part of the standard dominos rules?

              Cooper Zale Los Angeles

              by leftyparent on Sat Jul 18, 2009 at 07:58:51 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  That's the only way I've ever played it. You (0+ / 0-)

                can play just anything with a number that matches the end of one of the legs.  The only way to score points, though, is if the legs add to 5x after your play.

                Learned this from my Great Aunt in the early 50s.  The woman played cutthroat to win.  Lotsa fun

                Her croquet playing was even worse.

                Congratulations, Senator Franken, You're great enough, and elected enough, and doggone it, people like you.

                by maybeeso in michigan on Sun Jul 19, 2009 at 10:03:32 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

  •  *recommend* (0+ / 0-)

    Sorry I had to wait for the Rescue Rangers to find your diary -- and this is the only way I can recommend it or tip you for it -- but the important thing is that I found it!
    This diary and the comments have reassured me that I did well by my son, having raised him without brothers and sisters, but with plenty of respect, appreciation and interaction.
    My mom attended a one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota in the forties. She still stays in touch with that teacher. I wonder now if that experience had as much to do with how she raised her seven children as simply growing up in her own large family. Interesting.

    Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. ~Teddy Roosevelt

    by dejavu on Tue Jul 14, 2009 at 06:28:25 AM PDT

    •  Glad you found something in my thoughts... (0+ / 0-)

      Really enjoyed writing the piece and thought when done if said something important.  I am grateful it was rescued.

      We are at our best interacting with a wide range of ages, not necessarily with a bunch of people we don't know who are the same age.  That fact is so different than the "normal" school experience!

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Wed Jul 15, 2009 at 07:03:13 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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