“Dad! Watch this. I’m gonna make a three-pointer.”
My son stands six feet from a five-foot high basketball hoop. He shoots. He misses. He laughs.
“Aw. Just short,” I reassure. The ball did not touch the rim.
My son plays basketball the way I sing opera; with enthusiastic ineptitude.
He retrieves the ball and runs back to his spot. “I’m gonna try again,” he says, smiling.
He shoots. He misses. He laughs.
He blithely repeats this pattern, over and over and over, like a golden retriever with a learning disability.
Needless to say, I am thrilled. His effort, enthusiasm, and resolve are proof positive that I have not damaged him. Not too much, anyway. He does not view his failures as a reflection on his self-worth. His lack of success does not diminish his enjoyment. Despite imperfection, it does not occur to him to quit. Whose child is this?
Jesse Pearson…you are NOT the father!
He shoots again. Swish.
“Awesome, son. Nice shot.”
“Let’s play against each other,” he suggests.
“Okay,” I say with some hesitation.
I recommend a game of P-I-G, since playing one-on-one against a five year-old offers all the competitiveness of playing Pictionary against the blind.
After explaining the rules, I carefully orchestrate my son’s victory. He takes the game seriously, suddenly focused more on winning and losing than on playing the game. He no longer laughs at his missed shots.
“Let’s play again,” he pleads after his one-letter triumph.
“Sure. One more.”
This time, I decide, I will win. I tell myself that children need the confidence that comes from winning, but also the awareness of their fallibility. They need to know that if you play, there’s a chance you might lose. Maybe some parents are different. Maybe some children are always allowed to win. I don’t know what’s right. I just have the sense that occasionally letting my children lose – whether at basketball or Go Fish or thumb wrestling – means that they are not growing up in an entirely constructed reality in which only good things happen, only desired outcomes are achieved. I have no idea if this is the right strategy, but it seems better than living a lie.
Despite my efforts to keep it close, my son loses before I even get the letter P.
“I’m horrible,” he says as he runs off the court.
“No you’re not. Don’t be ridiculous.”
But he is already hiding in the bushes, quietly berating himself.
I want to try to explain the lesson to him, to tell him how you can’t always win, but that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad player and it doesn’t mean the game wasn’t fun. Before I can say anything, I am silence by my own memory.
As a boy, I would hit tennis balls with my father. For the first twenty minutes, we would rally. Balls flew over – and often into – the net. Back and forth. I always enjoyed those twenty minutes. Even if I wasn’t hitting well, I would laugh when I sent a forehand sailing into the chainlink 15 feet behind the baseline.
“Let’s play a set.” I would suggest.
Where does that impulse come from? Why did I feel the need to take something enjoyable and turn it into something competitive?
Inevitably, the joy of rallying would be replaced by frustration and self-remonstrations of an actual game. I would beat myself up for missed shots, curse every lost point. Even if I managed to win the set, the experience was a mixture of triumph and torture.
But I always asked to play a set. Just hitting wasn’t good enough. I seemed to need the pleasure and the pain.
And now my son seems to need it, too.
Is this a human trait? Is it a father-son thing? It cannot be unique to my gene pool.
My son and I are both capable of enjoying our own imperfections. We can laugh at pitches swung at and missed. We can smile when a three-pointer doesn’t hit the rim. So why the impulse to compete? Why do we wittingly take something fun and make it less so?
I learned early, as I suspect he is learning, that playing to win is different than just playing. Keeping score often diminishes the pleasure of the game. Maybe my son can learn that it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe he can learn to play for the sake of playing. Or maybe he can learn to be easier on himself when he is loses.
Maybe then he can teach me.