I loved games growing up. Checkers, Connect Four, Battleship, Chutes and Ladders, Clue. Even Monopoly and all of the frenzied, mini-capitalist tantrums that it begat. Loved ‘em.
Even as a much larger child in my twenties I loved games. Forsaking girlfriends and any shot at cool, my friends and I would gather regularly for epic games of Risk and Sorry (both fittingly named choices considering the circumstances). Sprinkle in a whole lot of chess and Trivial Pursuit and I carried into fatherhood a serious predisposition for killing time with a board and variously shaped tiny pieces, cards and die. So, when I became a dad, I was fired up. I figured the pointless joy I derived from all of these games would enjoy new life as I introduced my kids to these rectangular boxes of ridiculousness.
Thus far it hasn’t worked out that way.
The girls are just now getting to an age where play is morphing into a slightly more orderly version of chaos. Puzzles are assembled completely before attention wanes these days, stories that we concoct together actually remain focused, albeit loosely, around a central idea and we’ve been breaking out board games with more regularity, sometimes even playing from beginning to end. In theory, this sounds great to someone who has looked forward to reinserting such fun into his nearly thirty eight year long life in which board games have been noticeably absent for too long now.
An examination of a recent contest of Eric Carle’s ABC Game reveals the disconnect of theory from practice.
As you may guess, the game is pretty straight forward. A healthy dose of letter and sound recognition practice mixed in with some spirited arrow spinning and counting. Not exactly strategic global domination, but you have to start somewhere, right? First, we have to choose the animal pieces we want to represent us.
“I’m gonna be the kangaroo and daddy is the frog, ‘cause he likes green.”
“I want to be the kangaroo. You can be the cheetah.”
“NOOOOOOOOO, I WANT TO BE THE CHEETAH!!!!!!”
“Lemon, that’s what your sister just suggested.”
“But, I want to be the kangaroo!”
“Daddy’s the kangaroo and you’re the frog and I’m the penguin.
“Ooooh, I want to be the penguin.”
“NOOOOOO, I WANT TO BE THE FROG!!!!!”
“DADDY IS THE FROG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Cue the crying. And the board isn’t even open yet.
You get the picture.
The next forty five minutes are liberally peppered with moments of equally logical debate, hysterical laughter and body-flopping non-cooperation. As we inch around the board and collect cards, new rules are suggested every thirty seconds or so, the order of turns is questioned 762 times and one of the participants joyfully lobs herself onto the board at least twice, scattering everything below her and eliciting a banshee-like reaction from the next shortest participant. After an hour, we’ve made it halfway through the snaking path on the board that is exactly two alphabets long. Needless to say, awesome.
My excitement about the beginning of the board game era with my daughters lasted about as long as did my excitement about the impending presidential campaign season. The girls, however, loved it and already were planning the next game. My shoulders sunk just thinking about the next time we would be breaking out the ABC Game.
I’ve got a couple of choices here. I can choose to wallow in the inanity of it all, feel sorry for myself and bemoan the fact that I am going to have to sit through many, many, many, many, (sigh) many more of these games. Or I can once again learn from the circus of parenthood.
The selfish me wants nothing to do with that game ever again. The selfish me would happily light Mr. Carle’s ABC Game on fire. Quite happily. But, as I have learned (and, it seems, continue to need to learn), this journey is greatest when it isn’t about me. Fatherhood is about letting go of ego, of self, and sacrificing for the joy and the growth of my children. Mr. Carle’s game is not for my benefit. And neither is their childhood.
Sure, the games I loved growing up are fun and will be fun again when we get there, but we’re not there yet. What they find fun now isn’t what I find fun and that is as it should be because, again, it isn’t about me. And, really, the fun isn’t going to be found on the board – the fun is those two kids sitting across from me.
Interestingly enough, though, if I can divorce myself from my own desires and selflessly flow along with my girls now I can vicariously enjoy the game through them, laughing when they laugh even when I don’t have the first clue what they find so damn funny. By stripping away my ego and not actively seeking my own reward, I am rewarded – I gain peace, I gain connection, I gain presence. Funny how that works.
So it is said so often, these days pass quickly and before I know it they won’t even want to play Sorry with me anymore (hard to imagine, I know, but it just might be true). I will try to not look forward to those games we will play in years to come, the ones that I have played over my life. I will try not to look forward to anything, really. The fun and the joy and the lessons are here right now, today, in all of their ridiculousness, and I get to be the frog.