My five-year old daughter was not having a good morning. We had driven for an hour and a half and were now out and about on a trail, perhaps a mile away from the parking lot. She did not want to be here. “I want to go home … I want to go back to the car … when are we done? …” – and on and on and on.
My wife and I were a bit ahead and started conferring. Clearly, this wasn’t playing out the way we had hoped – should we just cut our losses and head back? Ugh, I just knew, if we announced that we were going to head back, the complaining would stop and our little girl would suddenly have all the energy in the world. This was so frustrating. She was an intelligent, sweet girl. If only she could look at it in a different way –
I paused. Was it a matter of perspective? Perhaps I could show her.
“Hey sweetie.” I squatted down next to her, smiling. She looked so unhappy.
“Did you know that there are two different types of games? Some games you play to win. Others you play just to play.”
She looked at me with curiosity now.
“That’s right. For example … Memory or Go Fish! Those games you play to win. You enjoy playing, but in the end you want to win, right?”
“But there are also games that you play just because you want to play. Like when mommy and you spend time with your play horses? Or when we play with your Legos? It is not about winning and losing then, you could play for hours – you are usually sad when it is over!”
She smiled. I could tell that she was paying attention now.
“Well now, this is important: There are lots of games, all the time, but you have to understand what game you are playing. Us being here this morning? It is not about winning or finishing, it is a game just to play. Mommy and I were looking forward to just being here and spending time outside together, as a family. Do you understand?”
She nodded and I could see that she did. We shared a hug and then both stood up. “Mommy,” she shouted, as she started running forward, “it’s a game to play!”
This worked almost shockingly well. We lasted several more hours out on the trail that day. The drive home was likewise easy. It was one of the rare times, when I could deliberately teach. I found the right words, she was receptive enough to listen and I explained my thinking in a way that was relevant and meaningful to her. It worked then – and it actually stuck: months later she would bring up and discuss “games to play” and “games to win.”
We now have an important shared concept and she can use it to understand how to approach specific situations and activities. It may have been one of the more useful things I was able to convey to her in the last year.