Monday, August 10, 2009

Winning and Losing

"I have to win!" Pie panted as we ran along the beach last weekend in an impromptu game of tag. "I have to win, or else I might ... lose!"

Winning and losing is a concept that dawns gradually for preschoolers, I find. Pie's first exposure to it was in our games of Dora Uno last summer. At first she was thrilled just to be playing with me, but gradually her expression started to turn sour whenever I happened to win. From there we built up some strategies - if you lose, I explained, just play again. Maybe you'll win next time. In recent months, Pie has become simultaneously more competitive and a slightly better loser: instead of sulking or refusing to play, she dives into the next round with a renewed determination to beat me.

Sore losing is like an allergic response - it doesn't flare up on one's first exposure, and each additional exposure prompts a more intense response. There is a stage in toddlerhood where games are pure activity; children are too young to understand the rules or even the object of the game, so instead of taking turns catching fish and then counting their catch to see who wins, they simply cooperate, arranging the fish into families and then taking everyone on a picnic.

Once children are able to play organized games, competitiveness begins to emerge, but it's still focused on process rather than the end result. Three-year-old soccer is a perfect demonstration of this principle. Not all the kids have grasped the concept yet: many of them are still wandering off to pick dandelions or enthusiastically kicking the ball into their own net. But even among the most competitive, the ones who consistently and skilfully score all the goals, there is no urge to keep score, no need to find out who won at the end of the game. By age five, though, the scorekeeping urge has begun to take over. "You guys are really good!" one of the parents said at Bub's last soccer game.

"Yeah," the goalie replied modestly, "the green team has all the best players."

One of the things I enjoy about Bub is his excellent sportsmanship. Sportsmanship is, perhaps, the wrong word, since it implies someone who is actually willing to participate rather than lying down in the middle of the field or gathering kids from the opposing team to show them the workings of his Ben Ten Omnitrix. But Bub has a genuine and disarming ability to rejoice in others' success. "You won!" he'll exclaim excitedly at the end of a game, adding as an afterthought, "I guess that means I lose!"

I was thus a bit surprised the other day when he was playing a game of roll-the-dice with Pie. It was Balderdash, actually, but without the cards or definitions, a simple game of moving pieces around the board to see who would reach the letter Z first. Bub won the first round and Pie, a veteran of numerous rounds of Dora Uno, cheerfully proposed a second game. When Pie won the second round, however, Bub melted down with startling rapidity and abandon.

Bub is a less experienced game-player than Pie, having until recently resisted activities that involve being told and/or shown what to do. He has yet to acquire the strategies that Pie has developed to cope with the agony of defeat. This was by no means his first experience of losing a game, however. I think what is new is his realization that the alternative to winning is losing, and that the person who loses is the loser.

All of this is developmentally normal and no cause for concern, but what I am struck by is the evidence of my own maternal naivete. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the autistic narrator explains, "I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can't tell lies."

It's a comical moment in the novel because Christopher's mother is such a cliche, crediting her son with virtues he does not really possess. This passage takes an attribute that sets Christopher apart from the norm and combines it with a maternal response that is nearly universal. What is more, readers almost universally share Christopher's mother's naivete. It doesn't matter how clearly Christopher explains his condition - readers are still willing to credit his innocence to him as righteousness.

It's something we do with our children as well, a biological imperative perhaps, an interpretive error with direct ties to the continuation of the species. We are charmed by the honesty of toddlers, even when technically we realize that they are not yet old enough to engage in deliberate deception. We delight in a two-year-old's capacity for living in the moment even though it merely reflects her inability to anticipate or conceptualize the future.

Bub has in some ways remained innocent longer than other children his age - longer, even, than Pie whose social awareness is acute. He hasn't learned yet to be jealous, to compare his possessions with those of his neighbour. He hasn't learned yet to temper his enthusiasm, to crack jokes at others' expense. He will learn these things, I know, just as he has already begun to learn the power of the words "I hate you" or "I don't want to be your friend." Like all other children, he has to learn to be worse before he can learn to be better. But in the meantime there is something shining and irresistible about his excitement when someone gives him candy - Bub hates candy, but he loves giving it to his sister. "Do you think Pie will like this?" he'll ask excitedly as he hurries over to give it to her, and I can't help admiring in him the purity of heart that so few adults are able to achieve.


Mary G said...

This is a wonderful picture of your kids and your interaction with them and I also love the topic.
I love it because I raised two extremely competitive kids and now have a grandchild who bids fair to be just as driven.
May your son continue to swim upstream for a while; he sounds like a fascinating boy.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

What we see in our kids tells just as much about us as it does about the kids, eh? That's one thing no one ever mentions when they slam mommybloggers.

I never play competitive games with my kids. Ever. But then, I hate conflict; and how can you have competition without conflict?

naomicatgirl said...

Nice observations. It's amazing how children can be so different from their siblings!

I've found that my youngest, who is NOT QUITE 3 chronologically has a hard time with this. We played a game sometime last week, and when his turn came and he couldn't go (you roll a dice and pick fruit according to the picture, there were none left of the type he rolled) he got upset, threw his basket of fruit and decided he didn't want to play anymore.

And this was a cooperative game (Orchard). I am not looking forward to the day he discovers competition.

No Mother Earth said...

I keep thinking that Big C is so sensitive and kind, but am beginning to realize that that may be in large part due to his exposure to mainly younger children. He hasn't hit the 'big leagues' of JK and 'real school' and I am dreading that - thinking all of a sudden he will "lose his innocence". It hasn't to happen sometime, right? This growing up thing?? Sigh. I don't think I'm equipped to handle it.

Carol said...

Isn't it funny how our innocence grows and expands, only to collapse again, like an accordion? We begin as tiny, truly innocent beings. We are born purely selfish.

As we develop, we begin to develop a concept of others. We learn that our parents can be happy or sad, and that their moods affect us. We develop a desire to please them, to make them happy, because when mommy and daddy are happy, the world is a better place.

We develop a sense of self to go with our understanding that others also exist, and herein lay the golden years. We perceive others, and we perceive ourselves, BUT WE DO NOT YET PERCEIVE HOW THEY PERCEIVE US.

We can rejoice in someone's gains, because we aren't afraid that they will look down on us for our losses. We don't worry that they might mock us, or that the smile might be threatening instead of friendly.

Such a tiny window. And once we realise - once we realise that when someone wins, they compare themselves to us... everything changes.

Gwen said...

Children access each other differently than adults do. This is what I find fascinating about writers of children's fiction: how they are able to remember what it was to be a child and to portray that experience accurately. So the grown up finds the toddler's actions darling, while other children see it for what it is.

I was reminded of this when I was reading "Number the Stars" last night. The youngest child, Kirstie, is an irritation to her older sister with her constant prattle about exactly what she thinks as she's thinking it. But when it comes time for the older sister to evade German guards, she uses her sister's techniques, knowing that the grown men will view that behavior more indulgently than she does herself.

I have achieved no grace in losing, by the way. Which is why I try never to engage in contests I'm not confident I can win.

Beck said...

Beautiful, really.
I think that if your mom doesn't see the best in you, who will? My son's radiant enthusiasm is read as outright goofiness by most children, but they are wrong. He is radiant. And enthusiastic.

Mimi said...

Ah! Get worse before getting better. I never thought of it like that, but of course! Beautiful post.

Bon said...

like NoMo, i've been thinking how sensitive and kind O is, and hating hating hating how this summer's preschool/sitter transitions have been exposing him to all the big kids with their nasty big kid ways.

but i'm mostly just being naive, attributing qualities where there is simply immaturity. he is the person he is, but much of who i can know him as right now is ephemeral, transitional. i forget that.

ewe are here said...

Oh, the competitiveness of my 4 year old who now wants to win whenever we play anything.

I giggle whenever I see wee ones playing soccer... I call it "magnet ball" for the under 5 set... since they all immediately cluster around the ball instead of maintaining their positions and some space... so cute!

Kyla said...

That is lovely.

KayTar has learned how to throw a big fit when she loses from her brother, the KING of such fits (she even uses his direct quotes in her fits). And oh man, BubTar does not like to lose. LOL.