On cold, rainy evenings after dinner is done, Pip likes to play checkers. His interest in checkers began a couple of years ago as a way to commandeer the focused attention of a parent, but now he’s grown to enjoy the game itself. He likes the idea of planning out a strategy and trying to make it work. He likes having control over the outcome, unlike Bingo or Go Fish which are largely games of chance. And, of course, he likes to win.
Pip’s desire to win is not obnoxious. He doesn’t talk smack beforehand or try to change the rules during the game to create advantages for himself. However, whenever his strategy goes awry or an unfavorable twist happens, he does get unglued. His face tightens up. His mouth puckers. His blue marble eyes get watery. His nose starts to run. He doesn’t quit or walk away, but he starts slumping and huffing and acting kind of miserable.
It used to be that he’d get this way whenever one of his checkers got jumped. He’d struggle really hard to keep from losing any checkers that once a jump inevitably happened, he would just fall apart. After several episodes like this we had to stop playing because neither of us was having fun.
For a while after that he played games against the computer at school and got more accustomed to the ebb and flow of the game. I don’t know exactly how those went – whether he got as frustrated with the computer or was able to see it as a different kind of opponent than his parents – but in the course of those games he gained some peace with the idea that you will lose most of your checkers even when you win. Since then he’s been able to get much farther into a game before getting anxious about things falling apart.
It would be easy to look at Pip’s behavior when things go wrong and toss it off as the act of a crybaby, something he does strategically to change the circumstances. But, I don’t think that’s really what’s going on. For one thing, his reaction is absolutely biological. It is a physical manifestation of the frustration he is feeling inside. It comes rolling out before he even realizes what’s happening. And, secondly, when it does come out, he fights it. He doesn’t give in to the tears or let out a full scale wail. He doesn’t throw a fit. He tries to keep it together, to keep his face from puckering, to keep the tears held in. This fight often just makes him more frustrated because he lost it in the first place. It’s difficult to watch because he’s trying so hard to do the right thing – both on the checkerboard and with his body – and he can’t quite get there. It’s still just beyond his reach.
But he keeps coming back and trying again. And, he’s getting better. On the board, he’s seeing my mistakes and capitalizing on them. He is looking several moves ahead and plotting how best to proceed. He doesn’t have a strategy for winning yet – he’s still not quite ready to sacrifice enough checkers for that – but he’s gotten agile enough to winnow down the board. He’s also handling the disappointments better. After an unexpected jump, he looks away from the board for a moment now. He shakes his head quietly. He’s working on figuring out how to smile through gritted teeth.
I’ve gotten better at managing this, too. I’ve learned how to give some on the game, to make some obvious mistakes to keep him invested, to back off when things start to fall apart, to give him a chance to redo something before the game gets too far gone. However, I still have to guess a lot about how much he can stand. Sometimes I go too easy, and he overconfidently sweeps the board. Sometimes I get in too far and have to scramble to keep him going through the end of the game. It can make for quite a dance.
Of course, this delicate balancing act between helping Pip along and throwing challenges in his way extends way beyond the checkerboard. It is one of those many negotiations that parents must constantly make, one of those needles we must constantly thread. In some ways I am asking for him to do two incongruous things. I want him to learn how to fight tenaciously to achieve something, to learn that coming back to it over and over is the only way to get better at it. At the same time I want him to learn how to suffer setbacks gracefully. I want him to display a level of self-possession that enables others to enjoy being with him even when things are not going his way. Those two ideas are at odds with each other in as much as tenacity requires a hardheadedness that is the opposite of grace. And to lose gracefully requires a kind of abandonment of care that is the opposite of tenacity.
Yet, people need both traits to be successful in the world. It is one of the many paradoxes of being human. Without tenacity the world will push you to the side. Without grace, you are unable to enlist the kind of help from others that is vital to actually doing anything.
And so, I will continue to play the game within the game, whether its checkers or math or soccer or dance. There’s always another layer to consider when you’re working with a child.