Nicki Gilbert is a writer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband and four kids. She has never played pool but did win a trophy for drama when she was younger. Her blog is www.RedBoots.me and she tweets @nixgilbertca.
“I’m never playing this game again!” His little face crumples in anger and frustration, and tears spill down his cheeks. He stomps his foot and throws himself in an emotional heap onto the couch. “I hate this game,” he sobs, “I’m never playing again. I never win.”
My husband and I look at each other in disbelief and something like horror. Is our 6-year-old a sore loser?
The after-dinner game of pool between my husband and the youngest has become routine lately. “I’m playing pool with Dad,” he announces most nights, even before he has swallowed his last bite of chicken. I hear them chatting and laughing, lining up the cues, having fun … until one-too-many balls not sunk by him ends the game in tears and red-faced fury. Sore loser.
We are mortified. For the 14 years we have been parents, we have taught our kids that the most important part of playing anything, from Battleship to basketball, is to have fun while they’re playing. To shake hands with their opponents, to say “good game” no matter who wins and who loses, and to not stomp off the field or out of the room because the game didn’t go their way. Missing the basket, a sinking ship, losing the game sucks. But winning isn’t everything, and wasn’t it fun while it lasted?
Apparently not for him.
He is the boy who loves to play. “Will you play football with me?” he asks his brother. “Mom, wanna play Go Fish?” “Can I play?” he asks his sister and her friend. He tackles every activity, every sport, every game with enthusiasm and gusto. But he doesn’t like to lose. And somehow we hadn’t noticed till now.
I understand his frustration with losing. I don’t consider myself competitive, but I certainly appreciate how great it feels to succeed, and I am no stranger to the dejection and disappointment on the other end. I know he wants to feel accomplished, he wants to feel that he is as skilled at pool as he is at soccer. Instead, he misses shot after shot and starts to wonder if he is any good at this game. Maybe he isn’t.
Or maybe it’s because the cue stick is too long, or he holds his arm in the wrong position, or he doesn’t quite grasp the angle of the cue to the ball. He’s only 6. Or maybe it’s because he hasn’t had enough practice.
While I try to remind him that it’s a game and is supposed to be fun, while I wipe away the tears from his angry, red face and tell him over and over that winning is not the most important thing (he insists that it is), while I worry that his distasteful, unsportsmanlike behavior will only grow as he grows, what concerns me more is his vehement declaration that he is “never playing this game again.”
“Sheva yipol tzadik va’kam,” it says in Proverbs (24:16): “A righteous person falls down seven times and gets up.” Rabbi Daniel Fox, associate rabbi and director of youth education at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, explains that Judaism encourages us to keep trying, to not be discouraged by the falling, the losing, even if it happens many times.
But our son can’t bear the feeling. He can’t bear to lose and feel disappointed in himself, and the only way his first-grade self knows how to deal with that is to stomp his feet and refuse to play ever again.
The shades of gray hidden in practice and experience, in try try again, are too elusive at this young age. We encourage him to keep playing, to keep practicing, to fall down and get up.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) says, “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it” (2:21). “This emphasizes the idea that you don’t have to be perfect,” Rabbi Fox says, “that you don’t have to complete the job or win the game. But just because it’s hard does not excuse you from trying and continuing to work at it.”
Even if you’re 6.
My husband buys him a smaller cue stick. It’s chicken again for dinner, and I hold my breath as he pops the last bite in his mouth.
“Dad, wanna play pool?”