It's how you play the game

Fri, 28/11/2008
One of K-Man’s friends gave him the classic board game Candyland for his birthday. At one time or another, just like reading Goodnight Moon, every kid will play Candyland. It may very well be the ultimate starter game (no dice, no counting, no complicated rules). Needless to say, with so many colors (not to mention a space on the board with an ice cream cone), K-Man LOVES to play Candyland as much as possible. Or rather, he loves it when I play.

In K-Man’s version of "playing," he watches while I pick the cards for each of our pieces (he’s always red, of course). From time to time, I can get him to show me where his piece should move, but for the most part, he’d rather watch me play for both of us than actively participate. (The consummate multitasker, K-Man can’t simply be confined to playing one game at a time, after all). What kills me, though, is that I’ve never won.

We’ve/I’ve played the game a zillion times and he’s won every single time. It’s crazy. What are the odds? No. Really. What are the odds? I’m guessing fairly slim. I’ve done everything possible to win. I’ve shuffled the cards. I’ve gone first. I’ve gone second. I’ve had him pick cards. No luck. He wins. Every. Single. Time.

Now, lest you think that I’m some insanely competitive father who has to beat his three-year-old kid at Candyland, that’s just not the case. I’m more fascinated by the fact that the cards keep falling his way. But it does make me think a bit about teaching the difference between winning and losing.

K and I were at the local park a few weeks ago, and a father and son were playing basketball. The dad was kicking his son’s ass in a game of one-on-one. Not letting up. Blocking shots. Making every shot. Pretty much just destroying his kid. The kid was not happy and finally took a seat on the court and just started crying. The dad said to me, "He’s not used to losing yet." I thought this was interesting, and I wondered when that day comes when dads stop losing on purpose.

I also thought about my days as a camp counselor, when all games ended in the notorious "Camp Shalom Tie." No winners or losers, the saying went, just good sports. (Still makes me gag a little, thinking about it.) As the camp sports director, I argued over and over to allow for winners and losers. How else will the kids learn about sportsmanship? Moreover, the kids were smart. They knew who won and who lost.

Anyway, flashing forward to Candyland. Chances are good that I might just let K-Man win the game, just as I let him win the other contests in which we play against one another. (See "hide & seek," "tag," "tug ‘o war," etc.) And, chances are pretty good that I’ll let him win for a while. But the fact that he’s winning all by himself (have I mentioned every single time?) makes me wonder when the day will come when I really do let him win . . . and stop letting him win.

Whether the kid is an athlete or not, he’s going to have to learn about winning and losing. He’s going to have to learn to win graciously and lose graciously. At the same time, I want him to understand that it’s okay to feel good about winning (something that I think we ignore in the name of sportsmanship). And, it’s not only okay to feel good about losing (provided it was a game well played), but also to be upset about a loss (though, not "destroyed" by it).

Yes, it’s most important to play fair, play hard and do your best. Can’t enjoy a win without knowing you gave it your all. But, after that, it’s about the win. Or the loss. For now, K-Man doesn’t seem to have to worry about that. But I apparently do.