My son turned four last month, and it took two weeks to open all the gifts, one to three presents a day. It’s a tradition we’ve had since his first birthday with us, when he turned two and our friends’ generosity was so overwhelming that we had to institute that policy. It seemed to work. As a result, some months later, on Christmas morning, we have video of Mikey coming into the living room, seeing his first tree with a heaping bounty of wrapped presents, opening one and playing with it, ignoring all the others.
Opening one present at a time ensures that each gift gets a moment to be truly treasured, not tossed aside into the heap of wrapping paper as he leaps to the next one in an avaricious frenzy. Everything he received he still plays with a month later, but one has become his addiction.
This was not Mikey’s first board game. For some holiday or birthday or perhaps for a Tuesday, I gave him a Thomas the Tank Engine board game. Mikey loved it, but decided the way you play it was to crash the trains into piles of cards while screaming, “Oh no! We’re falling to our doom!”
Eventually, the cards were lost and the little plastic trains entered their new life as bath toys just the right size to clog the drain.
When anyone asked what Mikey wanted for his birthday, I talked about his current obsessions, but I never suggested games. When he tore open the wrapper and saw it was Candyland, he got very excited until I explained that it wasn’t a huge box of candy. It was a game. It took him a moment to calm down and come up with a Plan B for what to do with it.
“Can we play it now?”
If you haven’t played it recently, there is no strategy in Candyland. The youngest person goes first, picks a card, and if it has two red squares, he goes forward two red squares. If there’s an ice cream cone or a lollipop, you go to that square. He grasped those rules early enough, and then it became important to him to win.
Mikey is competitive. I thought all preschool boys were, until I was in a room with a bunch of them and tried to motivate them to get ready for dinner.
“Who is going to be the first one to wash his hands?” I cried.
Mikey tore off in a flash, and the others wandered after or stayed where they were, looking at me bemusedly. So I know that my son is particularly competitive, and I love it because it means I can get him to do almost anything if I make it a game. And now, here was an actual, real game. So of course, Mikey wanted to master it.
Picking cards off a deck is obviously a matter of luck and Mikey is lucky, so he handily won the first couple of games. That thrilled him so much, he threw himself into a victory dance. I wanted him to keep on enjoying the game, so the next time I shuffled the cards, I surreptitiously snagged a couple of the candy cards, which would send a player to the final stretch. With what I imagined was dexterous slight of hand, I would slip one onto the deck as I picked my card, so Mikey could pick that card next and win the game.
My mom is as competitive as her grandson. Her game is Bridge, and she lives to demolish her opponents and earn gold master points in serious tournaments. A day after my trickery, I told her about Candyland, and my sneaky method to make sure Mikey wins.
“I can’t ever remember letting you win any game,” Mom replied, and then acknowledged. “Though I don’t think we tried to crush you either.”
I thought it would be good to let Mikey almost lose before slipping in the cheat. Lend the game a little drama. It could have gone better, I concluded, as I ducked the flying cards, figures, and board. Mikey went behind the curtains and sulked. After a few minutes, we talked about being a good sport and how no one wins every single time. He said he understood.
The next day, he asked Ian to play with him. They were having a fine, close game, when Ian was distracted by a text message. As he looked away, he saw out of the corner of his eyes Mikey slip one of the candy cards that I used to ensure his victory into the deck. Ian confronted him on the cheating, and Mikey rightly pointed out that I did it too. Evidently, my slight of hand was not as slight as I believed it to be.
By Mikey’s request, we still play multiple times a day, but we play it straight with no bending of the rules for any reason. Sometimes when you draw a candy card, it sends you back. Sometimes one of the players in a close race gets a lucky streak. Sometimes you land in licorice and lose a turn. Sometimes you almost win, and then you end up losing; and sometimes, it’s the reverse. I’ve been in the real world long enough to know that most people cheat if they think they can get away with it, but what I forgot is that it’s more fun not to.