By Beth Weiss, Copyright 1998
Who would have thought that playing Parcheesi with a five-year-old would be an ethical dilemma? It brought up a whole host of problems that hadn't come up before. After all, Candy Land, Hi Ho Cheerio, and Chutes and Ladders are games of chance, not skill. Even Monopoly isn’t a game of strategy, once you’ve mastered "buy everything in sight". Parcheesi is a whole 'nother cup of dice, though.
Playing Parcheesi "for keeps" against a player without a strategic plan is as easy as taking candy from a baby—and in this case, it’s my baby we’re talking about. I watched Jordan play with his dad the other night and I saw his dad pass up at least half a dozen opportunities to go for the jugular. Some people would say that I’m intensely competitive when it comes to games. I don’t know if I’d put it quite that way, but I can’t deny that I play to win--ignoring the exposed jugular just isn’t my game-playing strategy.
So, what’s a parent to do? This isn't an idle question—it’s a matter of sportsmanship, of modelling the appropriate way to be the overdog—in short, it's a key life lesson in the proper way to treat someone when you have the upper hand. It's an opportunity to literally teach this lesson at mother's knee, in a way that could have lasting life impressions.
So, I went through my options. If I play with all of the strategy and cunning I've developed in a quarter century of board game play, that hardly seems sporting. Worse, taken as a life lesson, it shows that if you have the upper hand, the right thing to do is to squash someone like a bug. Not quite what I'm trying to get across.
I could play poorly, and perhaps even let him win, at least sometimes. At best, that feels awfully condescending. At worst, winning when one is not the superior competitor can lead to the insidious notion that one somehow deserves to win, regardless of lack of skill or level of play. It can lead to the belief that one can be a contender, even in areas where one has no abilities or experience at all. In real life, missed opportunity and inattention lead to missed results, not success, but being allowed to win teaches exactly the opposite.
All of a sudden, Parcheesi seemed pretty daunting. The wrong decisions about how to play might subtly turn my impetuous sweetheart into a bug-squashing bully or an egomaniac with an inflated idea of his own capabilities. And if I screw this up, he might never become a worthy Parcheesi foe, leaving us with one fewer activity for dark winter nights. Okay, so I'm headed off the deep end here—one game of Parcheesi isn't going to change his whole life—but it could set the tone for a long time.
He already had the board set up. I wanted to stop, contemplate the possibilities, discuss them with other moms, and make the best possible parenting decision—but there wasn't time before he handed me the dice.
Pushed into a corner, I resorted to do the direct approach: spell out the problem, outline a few solutions, and try to reach a mutually agreeable solution. It turned out to be effective. We talked about races, and how it's no fun if you always lose, but it's also no fun if you don’t get to run as fast as you can. We agreed that it's more fun if the two players even things out before they start so that the faster runner can still run as fast as the wind, but the slower runner still has a chance of winning. So, I played with an 5th pawn, but I played to win—blockades and captures and all. I even pointed out to him opportunities he would have missed, explaining strategy as we went.
It was a fair game—a fun game. Most importantly, our Parcheesi game modelled some life lessons he needs to know: fairness, respect, fun, and competitiveness coupled with respect for one's opponent. Oh, and I got to demonstrate the art of being a good loser, too.
Okay, so maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but maybe I'm not—or at least not completely. I hope this year, as life's teaching moment’s present themselves, that we all feel good about the lessons that are learned—even the dicey ones.
Page last updated: 05/25/2005