How do we teach our children to lose? The art of losing may not be hard to master, but losing gracefully is another matter. My mother told me many early games of Candy Land ended in temper tantrums. And as children are mostly our childhood sins returned upon our own heads, I thought of my mother’s patience as my daughter flung Princess Candy Land across the floor.
It’s the first board game she’s ever obsessed over. The best card in the game is the aptly named Dopey the Dwarf, who catapults you to spitting distance of the finish line. The way Mercena murmured “I hope I get Dopey” to herself made clear the game’s designers were naming the dwarf after dopamine, that sweet neurotransmitter of again again. She was addicted.
Correction: she was addicted to winning, and losing—or even the prospect that she might—was an intolerable withdrawal. We tried all sorts of things: changing our language to “who finishes first,” explaining that losing is part of the game, fixing the deck to placate her, and of course, not playing anymore. None of it worked.
Then I had the idea about the magic coins.
It was simple: Mercena would be given three quarters at the start of every game that could veto any card. Did Mommy get Dopey? Magic coin. Did Daddy cross the bridge? Magic coin. Did Mercena land on the dragon? You get the idea. My plan was to wean her off them, one by one. And so we finished games again, and if her record was that of a heavyweight champ, at least the game was rigged in a way we all understood.
But it wasn’t Fair and Square. Those words, once introduced to Mercena, took on their own austere power.
Picture the great arena of victory and loss. On one side, Dopey the Neurotransmitter and his magic coins. He lounges on opulent pillows and plucks drunk olives from gold platters. On the other, Fair and Square sits on a lean stool, munching stale bread. The choice should be clear.
Yet she started to hate the magic coins. She was happy to win when we fixed the deck without her knowing, but the rigged victory tasted wrong. Because while dopamine has its power, fairness is also hardwired into our brains, and in the end, it mattered more.
If you’re thinking, “hey, is this just a metaphor for how privilege and fragility work,” I would tell you not on purpose. But I have often found that children reveal our seemingly complicated natures in clarified form.
For those of us with privilege, we need the rigged game, but we want to call it Fair and Square. And when our magic coins are revealed, we holler. I have hope that our hardwired fairness will win out against the fix of privilege. But that game is a long way from over.
A postscript in the spirit of “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We were given Sequence as a gift from a colleague and introduced it to Mercena as a collaborative game. She loves it. There’s never been a single tantrum. Sometimes the games keep going even after we’ve collectively won. Sometimes we just need to play a different game.