My son Walter and I are playing chess on a Saturday night. As often happens, I’ve let my competitive instincts get the better of my parental ones, and pieces are flying off his side of the board like grasshoppers off a meadow.
At some point in most of our games — even those he’s won, and he’s won a couple — he reaches a point of frustration, and that junction in the road appears to be under our wheels after I dispatch his second knight.
This passionate, fair-haired boy’s face turns red, and he convulses in fits of frustration and woe, ranting about how he’s never going to win.
Suddenly I feel a heat wave of my own, wondering if I’ve been selfishly ruthless.
It’s tough not to want to take back my moves, play easy on Walter. He is an impishly charming 7-year-old, and his temperamental, naive yearning to go straight to perfection without passing novice in any pursuit probably came from me, so I feel not only his pain but guilt that it’s there.
But what to do when Walter throws one of his premature-sense-of-hopelessness tantrums as we play chess?
If challenges aren’t fraught with some degree of frustration then they aren’t challenging. Parents watching kids undertake any challenge have to learn to let them cry, fume or simply hang their heads in moments of pain or discouragement, scuffed knees and such, so the children can learn to tolerate and rebound from suffering.
But whoa. Not too much. The hardest part of parenthood, I think, is knowing when it’s safe to let your kids struggle as a learning experience and when it’s right to step in and comfort them or even shield them from suffering they’re not ready for.
This is the decision I am now facing from my side of the chess board. Am I going to ease up on Walter?
Mostly what I want from the game, aside from some quality time with my son (at least when he’s not pitching fits in prematurely presumed defeat), is to give him some experience with a game he already loves to play. When I was his age I enjoyed playing chess with my grandpa, not-coincidentally also named Walter.
Chess, fortunately, comes with a way to score the value of pieces, and now is a good time to review with Walter how that works.
I urge him to help me count up the captured pieces to get an idea of what the score really is.
I certainly had more of Walter’s pieces; his trophies were of higher value. I had the edge on cheap pawns and both of his mid-priced knights. He had both of my pricier bishops. Both of us had lost our royally expensive queens. The total score was nearly a wash.
This bucked up Walter’s spirit a little, and I coaxed him into not quitting. At this point, I decided the best lesson I could teach was not about chess but life — to not give up, to cope with the blow-to-the-stomach feeling you get when you fear you’ve already lost but ought to persevere just in case you’re wrong.
Yet there was a nagging feeling I risked coddling him and reinforcing in his mind the utility of tantrums.
It doesn’t help that I’m sensitive (see perfectionism, mine, paragraph 5) to criticisms of “parents these days” being too soft on their children, too indulgent, too protective.
I rather doubt there was ever a time when “parents these days” weren’t criticized so. It’s just the nature of growing up. “Kids these days” have gotten similar treatment since probably as far back as when people chased hairy elephants with sticks: soft, lazy and foolish. That’s an easy accusation to throw around when you’re an adult, your brain has fully developed and life has taught you many lessons, isn’t it?
We can’t fully remember what it’s like to see the world through a child’s eyes because we can’t think like one, so their fiber and judgment inevitably but unfairly pale by comparison to the grown-ups we’ve grown accustomed to being.
I’d still like to tell myself that I didn’t really let Walter win, nor that I lied when, after he won, the perfectionist’s accidental protege asked if I’d let him. Let’s just say it was a nuanced answer. What I didn’t tell him then was that although I didn’t let him win, I didn’t actively pursue victory, either.
Basically I just let my pieces dwindle — but without making it easy for Walter to hunt down my game-critical king. I wanted him to at least find his own way to checkmate, which required more effort punctuated with a few more huffs of premature resignation. I counter-moved with encouragement.
Fewer pieces on the board, after all, doesn’t necessarily make the game easier. It frees up the board, providing more places to go, more permutations of move and counter-move, and a maddeningly long game of cat-and-mouse may ensue. Of course, fewer pieces also make you more vulnerable — as do fewer years of age.
Please handle accordingly.
Editor’s note: Matthew C. Durkee is assistant editor of the Triplicate.