Are We Wired to Win?

She studies the game pieces while quietly calculating her next move. Deftly flipping over multiple cards from the draw pile with one hand, she seizes the one she wants before they hit the table. “TWO PURPLE!” she shouts.

“Let me see.”

She flips up her palm, revealing a card with a giant purple square. “ONE purple,” I correct her as she grumbles, inching her piece one purple square forward.

I draw another card from the pile, flipping it to reveal a chocolate ice cream cone: “I move to the ice cream cone!”

IMG_3221.jpg“NO, YOU NOT MOVE TO ICE CREAM BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT HUNGRY!” she screams, banging her fist on the table. “YOU NOT WIN! ONLY I WIN!”

She is my daughter, Brontë, we are playing Candyland, and I’m thinking some lessons in good sportsmanship may be in order.

But not today, because today is her fourth birthday and we are just killing time playing toddler board games until her father gets home from work and the family arrives for cake and presents. I don’t want power struggles about brightly-colored plastic gingerbread men  to sour the afternoon.

But I’ll have to revisit the idea, teaching her better manners or at least better cheating skills, because I’ve never seen such a blatant cheat. She flips over multiple cards and grabs the one she wants, hides cards and lies about them, and slowly inches her piece forward (and mine back) whenever she thinks I’m not looking.

We’ve played several times this afternoon, and once when my piece was too far ahead, she picked it up and cast it into the licorice land of doom, pointing out its mustache-twirling overseer and declaring me “trapped.”

IMG_3225.jpg
The game isn’t going her way
Once, when her piece was too far behind, she claimed to have found a secret shortcut to popsicle land with its benevolent blonde fairy. Brontë makes up impromptu rules on the spot and throws diva fits whenever I win: “NO, YOU NOT WIN! YOU HEAR ME MOMMY?”

Being a parent often brings back early memories you would otherwise forget, and watching the Candyland saga play out suddenly brought to mind childhood games of Go Fish with my cousin Vanessa. We cheated too.

Vanessa would pretend she didn’t have the cards I asked her for. I knew she was lying, you see, because I’d positioned the game in front of a mirror where I could see all the cards she held.  I knew she was cheating, but couldn’t prove it without revealing my own subterfuge.

So I would give her just enough of the cards she asked for to keep things believable before winning the game. That’s the trick to successful cheating: you have to mess up just enough to keep things realistic. You don’t go from totally sucking at something to instant genius: that’s the Fool’s Way. You gotta throw a hand every now and then or you’ll make everyone suspicious.

This principle works for all childhood cheating opportunities. You don’t call “fish out of water” the second someone steps outside the pool when you’re opening your eyes underwater during a Marco Polo game. Give it a minute or two instead… no one is that lucky.

I wonder briefly if I should share this with my daughter someday, or just stick to pushing the rules of good sportsmanship. It’s the first of what’s likely to be an endless series of parenting compromises about teaching the right way to behave versus being realistic.

The funny thing is, before remembering all of this, my default assumption was that people only cheated in order to gain something: win the poker pot, reap the reward, get the promotion… why risk your reputation when there’s nothing at stake, right?

No… watching little kids teaches us so much about human nature. We see how our kids behave when motivated by pure instinct, before they develop enough adult finesse to make up better-sounding reasons why they are doing whatever they do.

And apparently, people like to win. Even without tangible rewards. My daughter’s conquering fury proves it.

Maybe platitudes about doing the right thing will never work as well as appealing to self-interest.

So, maybe the most effective lesson becomes: don’t cheat, or other people won’t play with you.

 

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