“But I want to go straight ahead!” my four-year-old daughter wailed, slamming her blue plastic doughboy back to the top of the cheerful, winding path on the Candy Land game board.
Stella had just drawn the ice cream card, immediately followed by the gingerbread man card. Anyone who’s played the game will understand that this is the cruelest fate one can suffer while tramping around the kingdom of the Lollipop Woods and Gumdrop Mountains.
A tantrum was most definitely in order.
Being a child of the 70’s and 80’s myself, I could vividly recall that feeling of utter injustice aroused by drawing the gingerbread man late in the game, or landing on the boy who breaks the cookie jar in Chutes and Ladders. Even worse was being on the losing end of a contentious game of Sorry. In that sadistic rite of passage, a lucky roll of the dice would turn your best friend, sibling or even a parent into a gleeful usurper of power and position.
Tell me again why these are classic children’s games?
As my daughter fitted and fumed, I debated my response. Let her throw the fit? Diffuse it by letting her cheat? Have a good laugh at her expense or–more humanely–help her see the humor in the situation?
I had to do something. This was the most obvious “teachable moment” I’d experienced in her sheltered little life. It was a prime opportunity to give my naïve girl a life lesson about right and wrong, courage in the face of adversity and the universe’s casual indifference to cries of “No fair!”
I racked my brain for comforting words of wisdom, trying to come up with something that would resonate with her preschool sensibilities. I opted for what I hoped sounded philosophical, with a touch of motherly love:
“Honey, sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. It’s okay to be disappointed, but if you don’t have any control over what happens, you just have to roll with it.”
I had no idea she was in possession of the scathing look I received. “Go. To. Hell.” her eyes said, followed by a pleading, “I don’t really understand what you just said, but if you love me, you’ll let me go visit Princess Frostine in the Snow Flake Lake.”
I was struck with the revelation that my role as a mother was becoming more complicated, and would likely get more so each year.
Up until that time, my husband and I had focused most of our parenting energy on caregiving. Because Stella was born healthy and had never faced a truly serious issue, our primary jobs were making sure she felt loved, and taking care of her basic needs.
Sure, there was the occasional Big Decision that could significantly impact her life: Should I work full-time or part-time? To helmet or not to helmet? Montessori vs. playschool? But most of the day-to-day child rearing was pretty obvious, and parent-child negotiations were resolved either with semi-rational discussion or threat of Word World withholding.
The Candy Land Incident gave me a brief glimpse of the road ahead, and it was disconcerting. It’s easy enough to explain why you can’t wear shorts when it’s 38 degrees outside, or why you have to at least sample the broccoli on your plate, but justice, ethics and resilience… these are much harder.
Of course, I did realize she was four and had a limited ability to grasp concepts like these. It was probably too soon for her to volunteer down at the family court or understand the international community’s role in the Darfur genocide.
But I also knew I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) shelter her forever, and that she already soaked in more than I would like, grappling with the big and small injustices within her 38-inch view of the world.
Why is Buddy in a wheel chair?
He had a terrible car accident.
Why does the coffee shop man need money?
He lost his job; is down on his luck; is mentally ill?
Why is that squirrel dead?
Wrong place, wrong time.
Why is the Giving Tree sad?
The greedy, narcissistic little boy used her up and left her to rot.
Though I knew these are necessary lessons, each little step away from innocence and toward a slightly more jaded understanding of humankind broke my heart a bit. But the sad truth is that life can be quite arbitrary, which she’d experience for herself soon enough. And since I can’t shield her from reality, it’s my job to ensure she has empathy for others, and can handle what is thrown her way with humor, optimism and a shred of grace.
But I don’t believe a crash course in Too Bad–How Sad is the most effective method of teaching her the ways of the world. So in the end, I packed up that fiendish board masquerading as fun, wiped the tears from her blotchy cheeks and put her in the bathtub for a therapeutic session of wound nursing. She emerged twenty minutes later, ready to get on with her day.
A few weeks later, she dragged out the game again.
“Can we play Candy Land without the cards?” she asked.
“Why do you want to play without the cards?” I said.
“Because I want to win.”
I want you to win, too, Sweetie. Every single time.
Jill Coody Smits is the author of “Paris When It Giggles: A Realistic Travel Guide for Adventurous Parents,” as well as the writer of many articles, blog posts, op-eds and essays. She lives in Austin with her husband, daughter and two four-footed sons.