I’ve been married for just over 20 years, and a parent for nearly 17. I’ve been a gamer the whole time. There are plenty of adjustments that had to happen for both those sentences to be true! We were the first people in our social circle to get married, and three years later the first people to have a child. And yet we were determined to stay active in our favorite shared hobby. So we had to figure out how to make that work, not only for us and our kid(s), but for our gaming group.
Most of that comes down to scheduling, which always gets more complex the farther one gets from high school or college gaming, when it was ridiculously simple – walk to the dorm-room down the hall, game all afternoon, maybe blow off class if the game was really good. Now, there are partners and jobs and travel time (why don’t my gaming friends all live within a five minute walk from my house??) and other hobbies and occasionally kids to think about. So the planning part is a little bigger. We always figure the last 10 minutes of a game night will be spent scheduling the next game night, because with a room full of active and connected adults, scheduling is a real thing.
What happened for the most part in our evolution as a gaming community was that while the kids were young we would always host. We would plan to start play at 8:30 or 9 PM and play for 3-4 hours after the kids were asleep. We have done this for years and years, and made sure our guests had snacks and tea and that one of us was available to host the usual half-hour of ‘pre-game hangouts’ while the other was busy putting kids to bed. Now the kids are old enough they put them selves to bed – it’s totally hilarious when our oldest son comes down to say he’s going to bed and could we keep it down. It’s a huge deal for us that our friends are willing to come to our house so we can put the kids to bed and still both play. Huge. And I’m deeply grateful.
When each of the boys were easily portable infants lacking independent locomotion, I’d occasionally tuck them in a sling and bring them along, if I thought it was reasonable to do so. When my youngest was a babe in arms, I ran a game of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for four other friends, two of whom also had toddlers. I brought my youngest and Vincent was home with our older boys. We played in the afternoon while the kids played in the next room, and we expected to be interrupted fairly often. We probably had a PG 13 with some drifting into R rating, and it was plenty of fun. It also meant that both parents in the host couple could play, which was cool.
The other big way to evolve as a gaming group when kids happen is to rotate players. There have been several games over the years that have come up and while we’d both love to play, we instead take turns. As much as we like hosting, it’s also important to go to other folk’s houses too, and let the hospitality run both ways. So Vincent spent a couple years driving straight from work to a friend’s house to have dinner and play while I did all the evening things at home. And I’ve been in weekly games across town where I’m the one heading out when the kids are getting pajamas on. We’ve even been in a couple games where both of us had characters in the game, but we traded off weeks. Flexibility is a big deal.
Note in both of these scenarios, I was not in the place of having to bring a child with me in order to game. But I have been the host and GM of a player who did have to bring his son with him if he was going to be part of the group. And so we did all the things Brie suggested in her post, about making sure there was a comfortable space for him to sleep, that he had what he needed by way of snacks etc, etc. Really, I hope you just read that post first – all those bullet points about handling kids in a non-kid-having house or kids at the gaming table figure just dandy for anyone hosting children, regardless of whether you have them or not. Being considerate of the guests to my home means being considerate of all the guests to my home.
But now, down to brass tacks. Here are some things you should know about your friends who have kids, especially your friends who game with you.
- First, let’s talk about age. Kids grow up crazy-fast. A child under 6 mos is super portable and stays where you put them. A child between 6 mos and 3 years is super-mobile and curious and takes a lot of hands-on care. A child from 3 to 5 gets increasingly self-reliant and verbal, and can be left with a sitter or put to bed early or sometimes allowed to stay up late with toys or a video. A child over 5 can usually grasp that adults need time with other adults, can usually entertain themselves for longer stretches of time, and are basically easier to work gaming around. The hardest years are 1 to 5. So think hard about how much time is involved in your parenting friend’s really active care of their young child. Then think about how long you waited for the Return of the King movie to come out once you knew it was going to happen. It’s not that long, really. You can be patient and gracious and have faith that your friendship is going to survive a period of not seeing each other as much. It’s similar to if you had landed a new job you really wanted that would take a couple years of hard work to excel at or a tough course load in grad school – if your friendship can’t survive that, there are possibly other reasons.
- Know that our kids are a higher priority than gaming. They are people we love more than you, no matter how much we love you. If someone gets sick or hungry or hurt, the game is going to stop for a bit while the needs of the child are handled. Sometimes this will mean canceling at the last minute or leaving early. We know that sucks ; it sucks for us too. Be compassionate. These are living people we are taking care of. If they were our invalid parents, or our partner who was dealing with a serious illness, would you begrudge us the time and attention we gave them? Would you maybe find a way to help out instead?
- Try to understand that we want to hang out with you too, which is why we’re working so hard to make that happen, even if it’s awkward and less than ideal. We know it’s hard. We understand. We’re trying to balance our need to be a good parent with our need to be a good friend and our need to have a sense of self. We want time with you too, and the support and community of other adults is really important to being a decent parent. Be easy-going and relaxed about this, not demanding.
- Understand that sometimes you are going to miss out on cool stuff we’re doing because we’re including the kids. Hanging out at the park for an hour or two while the kids play might not work for you, but it will for other folks. Please don’t get jealous. If you act like our two-year-old because you are competing with our two-year-old for our attention, that just reflects really poorly on you, and it puts us in the place of having to be the adult in the situation for you as well as for our kid. Way better to just schedule something we can all enjoy.
- Following that, if my kids being in your house makes you tense, let’s hang out somewhere else! Parks are good, libraries sometimes work out (depends on the library really), bike paths where parents of really little kids can push a stroller – all good places to hang out with parents while not being overwhelmed by kids! Call to set it up and we’ll be touched by your thoughtfulness.
- If you just plain don’t like kids, we might just not see each other so much for a few years while they are young enough to need parents around a lot, and it might be a thing that brings distance to our friendship. Oh well. I’ll be sad about that, I’ll try to maintain a friendship with you and do all the things I’ve listed in this article to bridge that, but I will feel it, and I will stop coming by if it’s clear my kids are not welcome. Because I care about you and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, especially when it makes me and my kids uncomfortable too.
- Please don’t get mad at us or feel hurt when we seek other avenues for gaming. It’s not that we don’t want to game with you, it’s that we want to game in different ways that work with the new environment, or on a different schedule. Many people will try to fit in gaming with parents, but if you can’t, try to find an alternate group.
- Respect our boundaries. If we say we can play from 7 to 10, don’t show up at 8:15 saying “Sorry I’m late!” and expect to run long to make up for it. Call and let us know, and the rest of us will play without you. Likewise, if we say we have to end at 10, we mean it, and you should plan on getting your shoes and coat on at 9:55. Give a little thought to the language you are using around my kids, and I don’t just mean swearing. I mean check yourself for language wherein you are treating another person poorly.
- If you don’t want to game anymore, or you need a more predictable schedule, please tell us. It will only cause problems if we try to shove it into a schedule that’s not realistic or have people who aren’t in the mood to game at the table. We want relaxed happy people having fun, not people frustrated and stressed.
So the tl;dr version: Scheduling, gratitude, flexibility, mindfulness and compassion go a long way toward making the evolution of your gaming group more like an interesting unfolding of new abilities and shapes where everyone finds new connection and less like a careening jump into a dark pit of questionable depth that might give you superpowers but also might kill you – or at least kill your game.