Unsportsmanlike Conduct

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Just how old do your kids have to be before you stop letting them win? You're a good parent, one who believes in encouraging participation, building the confidence required to enjoy a life of sportsmanship. So you miss on purpose, let the ball drop, don't ask for the ace you know she has in her hand, conveniently fail to spot the double jump that would -- sweet! -- allow you to be kinged.

On the other hand, you're a person; you're a loser biting her tongue, a martyr denying thoughts you must not allow: I could so clean your clock, girl.

Five? Seven? Yes, I think these are good ages to stop letting your kids win. This could be a carefully considered estimate, or this could be because I am so sick of losing all the time. We're playing Trouble. I'm blue, Dad is green, the 5-year-old is yellow, and the 7-year-old is red. We've been playing Trouble many nights a week after dinner. It's a good game. All the fun is in the Pop-o-matic bubble. Popping is something to look forward to even if you still haven't popped the one stinkin' six required to get one of your pegs out of home base. There will be another turn! You'll get to pop again!

I still haven't gotten one stinkin' six. The 7-year-old already has two of her pegs out, with no help from me. No, all four of my blue pegs are pathetically sitting there, inert. It's okay. I'm trying to show my girls that losing is okay, that patience is a virtue, that a string of stupid rotten luck is survivable. This is important because the 5-year-old is in my same predicament.

"Do you have a cold?" the usually-more-sensitive Dad asks her.

In fact, the 5-year-old is crying. She can't take it anymore. Even the thrill of popping the Pop-o-matic is no consolation to her six-less evening.

"It's okay, Sweetie," I say to her. "We're in this together. We're a team!"

"A team of losers," she sniffs.

True enough. Dad pops a six. "You want my six?" he says to his loser daughter. "You can use my six." She looks at me. Is this allowed? Uh, no. As far as I know, acts of charity are not a sanctioned game strategy. But this is how we play. Our times of Trouble are all sweetness and generosity and gooey love. It's a choice. For example, if a parent were to pop a four, the very number needed to land on a space occupied by a child's peg -- thus sending her back to the beginning -- the parent would choose not to move. You can't bump off your own kid. (Can you?) And so the children have followed the example. On the few occasions when they choose to bump off their parents, or each other, it is only with a lot of apology and promises to clean rooms.

What kind of boring Trouble is this, I ask you.

The 5-year-old takes the gift of six and goes popping around the board, eventually popping a three, which would land her peg on the father's peg, thus sending him home.

She looks at me again. Oh, the agony of being another person's moral compass. Her dad just gave her a six, and now she's going to bump him off? "Take him," I tell her. She grins. This could be positively delicious. "Destroy him!" I say. She beams. He shoots me a look of horror. "I'm just kidding," I say, not entirely convincingly.

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