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Lessons in losing : slippery adventures in parenting

08 February 2017 -



Of late, my most important conversations happen in the bath. Sometimes I find a magic window in my busy household and enjoy 20 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, immersed in Epsom salts, lavender oil and bicarbonate of soda. This combination is supposed to release toxins. I have no idea if this actually works. I emerge from the water, wrinkled as a prune. Happy as clam. Totally reinvigorated.

On other occasions, my ‘alone time’ seems to attract more company than one would think possible. My daughters, if not otherwise distracted, will seek me out and share my bath time in more ways than one. My youngest can disrobe startlingly quickly (this is in amusing contrast to the sloth-like pace at which she gets dressed in school uniform every week day morning, especially when we are running disastrously late). She is so silent and adept at this practise that the first I am aware of my bath time interruptus is her ninja like descent. Tom Daly would be stunned at the lack of splash. A sudden slippery seal pup squealing her delight at surprising mummy. I love these times. Top and tailed in our too small tub, and fashioning foamy hairstyles with gravity defying aplomb. We also have some very serious chats.

Today’s discussion was all about Daddy. And competition. And how much it sucks to lose.

I recently bought a surprisingly pristine copy of the board game ‘Battleships’ from our local charity shop. I do love a bargain. I also love my girls playing with toys and games that are not particularly ‘intended’ for them. Games that involve strategy and logic. Pursuits that work and grow their brains, and challenge their minds. There are only so many times you can play Uno, let’s face it.

But now, my eldest  was in a deep funk and close to tears.

I had left my little family earlier with at least one of them enjoying Dad’s introduction to this childhood classic. Sunday late morning, kids entertained, husband dutifully doting, lunch quietly roasting, I wasn’t needed! I had a window – I could slip away unnoticed and bathe.

Even by my standards it was a wonderfully long bath. I was just topping up the hot water for the nth time and had almost finished my book when the little knock at the door came. I soon found out, in tear sobbing, rambling outpour that Daddy, in all his wonderful Daddy wisdom had completely trounced my first born at Battleships. He hadn’t won a bit. He’d won A LOT.

(Husband would like to point out that the game was actually far from lost when daughter started wobbling bottom lip. Note to self – further discussions needed about luck versus skill and keeping your pecker up, especially if the fat lady is yet to sing). But this was revealed later. Back to the story.

Now, I will admit, I am torn on this one. The ethics of parenting. Part of me thinks your job as a parent is to handicap your own skills and abilities at times, to allow your child to feel they at least have a moderate chance of sometimes coming out on top. No one runs full pelt in a race against a wobbly 2 year old. Or unleashes their full might on the tennis ball when their offspring is gingerly standing across the net having just mastered the basics of the game. Do they?! My husband is a competitive man. But interestingly until now, he has not been a competitive dad. We have both tried to give our girls the ‘right’ level of challenge, just enough to keep them motivated, not too much to dishearten and outrage.

Apparently that all changed today. Battleships connected with some primeval need, deep down in him to survive, and annihilate all challengers. Even if that challenger was his sweet little daughter who had never even heard of the game before we opened the box.

In this painful encounter she had learnt several lessons. The first, overwhelming one was that Daddy got a bit mean when playing this game. She doesn’t see that side of him much. She was pretty stunned by this. Another lesson was, that it is quite shocking to lose, and to lose so completely. No soft soaping. No rose tinted spin. Straight up, punch to the nose ‘You’re a loser baby’. And it feels bad to lose.

I was feeling at peace. I was blissed out and wrinkly and before the knock was getting a bit bored of being submerged, but was just too lazy to do anything about it. So me and my child had a good old chat. I dissected things for her. ‘Let’s get this straight. A man, very experienced at all kinds of games, 34 years your senior, and with a ruthless approach to play, completely whopped your ass?’ ‘Yes mummy’. ‘And you are feeling pretty bad about that right now?’ ‘Yes mummy. I never want to play that game ever again in my whole life, mummy.’ ‘Okay. So if you went downstairs and played the same game straight away with your 6 year old sister, who do you think would win?’  ‘I think I would mummy. I’d be more experienced and I play chess a bit and she doesn’t so I would probably be better.’ ‘I agree, darling. And you are only 2 years older than her. But already you can see how age and experience usually swings things in your favour. Should your little sister feel bad if she lost under those circumstances?’ ‘No mummy. Especially if she’d never played before.’

And then she smiles. She gets the point. She leaves the bathroom indignant and mollified. I also tell her another little nugget because I am in such a supremely good mood, and love my sometimes-very-annoying husband deeply. ‘Daddy may have annoyed you today with his game playing, but it does show he respects you. He didn’t treat you like a baby or someone to play half-as-well-as-you- can against. He treated you like a worthy opponent. One to be feared and to bring your A Game with. So it is annoying and upsetting today, but if you don’t give up, if you keep playing and learn all the strategies that Daddy employs, think how amazing it is going to feel on that day when you beat him. When you totally whop his ass’.

She smiles broadly. A grin as big as a Cheshire Cat. She closes her lovely eyes and imagines this wonderful future scene. I can see the glee and delight play across her face, on that longed for day when she finally and deservedly bests him (and knowing my girl this will happen sooner rather than later).

And I think what a great gift her Dad gave her today. An appetite to win. A thirst to excel. How as a parent it is too easy to aim too low, to expect too little. She was totally ready for this challenge. The gauntlet has been thrown down (unbeknownst to Dad until he reads this). And there are exciting days ahead.

This is a guest post by Martine Lambourne. This November, after a lot of research, review and sleepless nights, Martine and her husband launched After Alice Ltd, an online toyshop inspired by girls that seeks to go beyond the restraints and lazy stereotypes of the pink aisle. The result is a carefully curated collection of toys, games and books for children from 3 years to teens – a host of wonderful games to excite, challenge (and beat your Dad at).

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