Power and Kindness

It was one of those warm January afternoons. My two children and two of their friends had convinced me to play "Cookie Monster" out on the sidewalk. I don't know where the game came from, but they've known it all their lives, and it's a favorite when adults are available. As I played, I noticed once again that the rules are carefully set up so that the adults can't win. As the Cookie Monster (the adult role; I've never seen it given to another child), I chased the children (the cookies). They had their bases strategically located on all the porch steps, however, so they were hard to catch. If I did happen to get one, I got to pick the cookie up gloating, and put it in the oven under a tree--after which I'd be able to eat it. But I always had to close my eyes and take a nap while it was cooking--that was one of the rules--and inevitably another cookie would save it from the oven while I was sleeping. Their running, cheering and laughing would wake me up--and I would see that I had lost once again.

After playing the game for a while, my youngest decided that it would be fun to be caught. So he'd take little pretend running steps without moving forward. I'd obligingly scoop him up and pop him in the oven--and he delighted in the whole process, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that he'd have all the fun of being rescued by other cookies while I took my nap. We played for a long time, and while being a constant loser is not my first idea of fun, I did get plenty of exercise--and they laughed and laughed.

A couple of days later, the three of us were playing War. I've never like those cut-throat competitive card games. But if small children want to play with "real" cards, War is a good one to start with since the rules are simple and absolutely no skill or strategy is required. (And, says the educator in me, they do get practice with numbers.) As we played, I was a little reassured to be the one who was losing decisively. Though they seemed to be accepting the gain or loss of cards with remarkable equanimity, I thought things would go better, and they'd enjoy it more, if they were winning.

When I noticed my eldest picking through his cards to choose what to play, I assumed he was trying to cheat. I was amazed to see him play those cards not to win, but to lose. I asked what he was doing and he said that my pile had gotten too low. He wanted me to have more cards! The younger one then noticed the imbalance and both began turning their winnings over to me for a while in order to even things out. I was dumb struck. Who ever heard of kindness in a game of War?

And what a switch from Cookie Monster! Yet I think the two are related. The children had all the power in the Cookie Monster game; the rules were in their favor--a delicious contrast to normal adult/child relationships. Moreover, they were in total control of how much risk they wanted to take, how far from base to venture, knowing that they would triumph in the end. They came to War with the knowledge that they could beat an adult any time they played Cookie Monster--and have a great time together doing it. Power was not a scarce commodity. Winning was not an activity that set them in uneasy competition with their peers. They could afford to be kind.