Inevitably, parents ask me how their children are doing with their chess playing at some point during the semester. Its a simple enough question. After all, the parent has signed their child up for one of my chess classes and wants a progress report. However, parents often feel that their child should be making greater progress than they actually are. This is because most parents have unrealistic expectations when it comes to their child’s ability to learn something outside of the normal school curriculum. Rather than comparing the study of chess to the study of music, which requires a great deal of dedication and practice, most parents think of chess as a mere board game akin to Monopoly. Thinking of chess as a simple game sets the parent up to think that it can be learned and mastered in a relatively short period of time. Therefore, a parent thinking in these terms will expect their child to quickly learn a game that in reality can take many lifetimes to master.
Parents enrolling their children in a chess class or club should do a little research regarding what to expect from both their children and the person(s) teaching the class or running the club. Of course, parents have the right to think that their child is exceptional. After all, we’re all proud of our offspring! However, we should always maintain realistic expectations when it comes to our children’s learning experiences for both their sake and ours!
A crucial idea to consider is that children learn slowly. While some youngsters learn subjects more quickly than others in their peer group, the majority of children learn at a slower pace. This means that both parents and instructors alike must exercise patience. I had one of my young instructors comment that his students were three weeks into their chess lessons and they still hadn’t fully grasped the idea of developing their pieces towards the board’s center. His students were 1st and 2nd graders, new to the the game, so it will take them a while to understand and employ basic opening principles, not to mention how the pieces move. Patience is key!
How do we, as chess instructors, help young students understand important concepts? Through repetition and reinforcement. In the opening phase of the game, students have to develop their pawns and pieces towards the center of the board. Children learn this concept of good development repetitively. Good opening moves are practiced over and and over again until the concept of centralized material development is etched into their thought process. However, I’m not talking about merely memorizing moves! When I say “repetitive,” I’m also talking about trial and error! Often, the most important lessons in chess are learned when beginners try to achieve their goal using one method (their method) only to eventually realize that their method doesn’t work. Once the beginner realizes that his or way of thinking doesn’t work, they try the method taught to them by their instructor. This is something children have to go through, trying their way first. During this cycle of repetitive learning, teachers have to reinforce the reasons for using, for example, correct opening principles. This is done by showing students how those opening principles make their game better. If we show our students that centrally developed pawns and pieces control important squares, making it difficult for their opponent to launch attacks, we’re able to visually reinforce the concepts being taught. You cannot simply say, “do these things during the first ten moves of the game because I say so!” You have to show children visually why specific principles work. Don’t assume, because they’re young children, that they don’t need a real explanation when asking them to do something. I don’t like someone answering my question with “because I said so,” and neither do my students! My students are taught to question everything!
Children also learn by mimicking what they see and this can be a double edged sword. When showing young children a game by Paul Morphy in which he makes a seemingly wild sacrifice of his Queen, don’t be surprised if a few students sacrifice their Queens with disastrous results. A child might think, “Morphy sacrificed his Queen and won the game, so I’ll do the same thing and I’ll win my game!” Children learn by example, so if you present a game in which important pieces are sacrificed to win the game, don’t be surprised if your young students try to emulate what they’ve just seen on the demonstration board. It is best to use very simplified examples that demonstrate sound game principles rather than daring gambits and sacrifices, at least until your student’s knowledge of the game improves.
Parents should talk to the parents of other students in the chess class or club to get a better idea of where their children are in relation to other class or club members. More often than not, they’ll see that the majority of the class is on the same page. Parents should also take an active role in their child’s chess education. They should encourage their children by playing chess with them. If a parent doesn’t play chess or is too busy to play, that parent might consider investing in a chess playing program so their child always has an opponent. A fair portion of a child’s chess education lies in the hands of their parents. I offer free chess lessons to parents who want to play with their children but don’t know how!
Learning chess takes a long time. While adults can learn the game’s rules in a few hours, children are another matter altogether. In a perfect world, children would spend about nine months just learning how the pieces move. However, most chess classes have to condense that nine months into eight to ten classes per semester. Sometimes, a parent will say to me “my child is still making illegal moves, so I don’t think their learning the game correctly.” This translates to, “you’re not doing your job because my child is not playing as well as he or she should be playing, in my non chess playing opinion.” Rather than explain to the parent that young children can take up to 12 months to adequately learn the basic rules of the game and taking an 8-10 week class is too short a time frame for proper instruction, I ask them if they play chess with their children or, if they don’t play would they be willing to learn how to play. Sadly, many parents say that they’re too busy. Then there are the parents who are convinced that their child is the next Magnus Carlsen. This brings me to my final thought: Pressure
We’ve all witnessed the horror that is the all out sports parent. You know the type. They mentally brow beat their children into thinking that the game must be won at all costs and if the game was lost it was because their child wasn’t giving one hundred percent of themselves. Every game is a dire do or die situation. Life for adults is filled with too much pressure as it is. Let your child enjoy childhood. There will be plenty of time for them to stress out later on in life. One of my best students has parents who gently nurtured his interest in chess. They followed my instructional advice and didn’t put him under any pressure to perform. He is now one of the top players in his age group here in California and the Northwest. His parents met with me, took notes at all our meetings regarding their son’s improvement and played chess with him. His mother, who hadn’t played before, took lessons from me so she could help her son. Incidentally, his mother, two years later is a regular player on the local chess club scene here. They did all the right things and made a point to not put pressure on their son. Pressure can drain the passion for chess right out of even the most enthusiastic young player. So, remember what to realistically expect from your children when you enroll them in their first chess class or club. Be gentle and nurture their budding love for the game. Here’s game to enjoy until next week.