Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Can a game of "hot potato" really crush your spirit?

I'm currently in the throws of Googling planning activities for my son's 4 year birthday party.  We want something low key, low stress and low budget.  No camel rides or clowns.  Strictly a cash bar. Except for kids.  Kids drink for free.

Seriously though, here I am perusing the options and noticing that not much has changed in 30 years.  Top recommendations include: duck-duck-goose, pin the tail on the donkey, hot potato and musical chairs.  Are those games just the absolute pinnacle of pre-schooler fun or have we really become so uninventive? (Says the woman Googling party entertainment)  It seems that, much like nursery rhythms, not much has emerged to supplant the classics.

Well, with one exception.  Much of what I've seen online recommends ways of avoiding having anyone lose, or even win, each game.  I've read about modifying "musical chairs" so that everyone stays in the game and finds ways to touch the remaining chairs until they form a precarious human sculpture on the final chair.  I've seen well meaning mothers advise you to give each child a small prize along with their otherwise shameful exit at Hot Potato circle of child self esteem destruction.
How can such a small tuber cause such trouble?
And so I ask: Is this what we've come to?  I understand you want to keep your party light, up beat and the children feeling good.  But do we really expect so little resilience of them?  Are we so afraid of crushing their little spirits with a minor setback? And how do expect them to learn resilience if they are constantly insulated from disappointment?

This may sound curmudgeonly, but I have these concerns for good reason.

I was one of those kids who these well meaning parents are worried about protecting.  I was sensitive, insecure and easily wounded. I took things too personally. It wasn't easy.  I remember losing, getting kicked out of games, seeing myself ranked behind other children.  But after each set back or perceived insult I developed thicker skin.  I developed strategies to soothe myself, build myself up, or just work harder for what I wanted.  I suppose we all did.  If you're used to playing lots games with winners and loser you don't take the whole endeavor so seriously.  You understand, maybe more than overly protective adults, that it's just a game.

But I can hear your protests all the way here in Kenya. "They have their whole lives to compete, do we have to start now?"  "Our culture is already overly competitive, can't we model cooperation instead?"  "Why should we willingly expose our dear children to disappointment and frustration; childhood is fleeting and should be enjoyed."  And, hey, my instincts run the same way.  My husband is the disciplinarian and I'm the softy. I'm the natural coddler and indulger.

Still, the more I read about what kids really need to succeed in life, the more I'm changing my tune.  Books like Nurture Shock and How Children Succeed, show convincingly that what really matters is not high IQ or high "self-esteem" but things like grit, determination, optimism, and ability to weather disappointments.  And forget about success.  Those skills can also make your child happier in the long run.

Some kids have more of these prized qualities from day one.  Some kids are less sensitive and thicker skinned in the same way that some kids are better at catching a ball or carrying a tune.  But that doesn't mean that we can't help them gain these life skills in the same way we'd help them learn an instrument.

The thing is, I'm not sure how to do this.  You could expose them to disappointment, as I seem to be suggesting.  But what does that world look like?

I think it looks a lot like the world I'm living in now.  Here in Kenya, not only are children exposed to winning and losing, they do it publicly.  School rankings are posted for all to see.  Certificates for "The Best... just about anything" are given out with ceremony.  If children misbehave in school, the whole class joins in in shaming them.  Instead of saying "you can do better" or "this could use improvement," a teacher will simply tell a child, "this work is poor."

This looks extreme to me and I naturally worry about the kid who, instead of learning a valuable life skill, has his spirit crushed by all this pressure.

But the adults I meet do not appear to have their spirits crushed. In fact, they seem to be able to laugh at themselves, to take a good natured ribbing in stride in a way that I find uncommon among Americans.  They don't appear to care so much what every person in the room might be thinking of them.  To make a huge generalization: egos here remind me of stones - small, tough and easily settling in next to others.  Typical American egos remind me of balloons - large, easily popped or deflated and constantly bouncing off one another.  

I know a lot more goes into a resilient ego and a strong sense of self than an unforgiving school environment.  I know I'm probably missing a huge part of the population here who might feel resentful and even mildly traumatized by this upbringing.  And I know I might not want something so extreme for my own kids.

Like so many parents I'm trying to provide the right balance of toughening them up to prepare them for the world and shielding them from too much hardship.  I'm not exactly sure what the right balance is, and living in a place that does things so differently throws me a bit off my axis.

Still, Kenya provides a good reminder that children are more resilient than we give them credit for.   At Caleb's birthday party, the first kid out of the circle in the game of Hot Potato, will probably have forgotten about it before we cut the cake.  But I'll eat my words, along with the cake and maybe even that hot potato, if things turn out differently....


  1. Really good points. We make such a fuss over so many things, probably from an inflated sense of our own issues, that we overlook the value in what are common experiences. That said, I'm fond of group projects for parties. Some of our projects include making clay houses and baking them, tiny terrariums, mosaic flower pots, and a not-too-authentic batik party.

    1. Good idea about the group projects. I picture chaos with the 4 year olds, but maybe that's OK. ; ) I can always keep it in my back pocket for when the kids get older too. Thanks for the link!

  2. I agree with you. If you take away the disappointment of losing - you also take away the thrill of winning and I think it's good for kids to have a healthy dose of both experiences.

    1. Agreed!! I guess the key is a "healthy" dose of both. Whatever that means... The trick of parenting is in the nuances, isn't it?

  3. Well first of all, good luck with that whole "birthday party for four year olds" thing...I think son #2 (also named Caleb) didn't get a "real" party (ie, with friends & not just family) until he was maybe six? But anyway: OF COURSE someone will cry at the party and probably it will be the birthday boy...but winning or losing hot potato, pin the tail on the camel, or whatever isn't going to the be reason. That's the first thing. Second thing? BRAVO to you for not caving into the whole "oohh, kids so delicate..." BAH. Kids are delicate and fragile if we make them that way, at least in part. If we send them the message that there's something "not okay" with "not winning," then that's what they learn. Have you seen "The Incredibles?" Yeah. It's all about that. And then there's this hysterically funny & oh-so-true piece from gizmodo, which a friend forwarded to me b/c I'm not cool enough to even know what "gizmodo" really is:
    Happy Birthday!! (and i LOVE the analogy of stones & balloons)

    1. I KNEW I was behind this whole debate. Like there has probably been a backlash to the over-protective parenting backlash. I'm often one step behind these, things, but if this made it to a GD cartoon, I really need to get in better touch with the zeitgiest. Anyway, I loved loved loved that link to the Gen X piece and related to every word. (had no idea what gizmodo was either...)

  4. Ooooh...I really like the rock/balloon metaphor. What a great visual image!

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