Balderdash & Circles of Equals

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.

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