You Didn’t Build That: A Parenting Experiment
This past week, while vacationing in the Great Smoky Mountains, I discovered a unique opportunity to teach my two children something when they least expected it. It all began on the third day of our trip, when rain forced us to spend the morning inside our beautiful cabin.
My son (6) had spent two hours making exactly 26 beautifully-designed weapons with his K’nex toys. There were elaborate crossbows with multi-pronged arrows, daggers, and an assortment of Chinese star type gadgets. He called me back to show off his arsenal, and I responded with a now-famous Obama line. “You didn’t build that,” I said. “Somebody else made that happen.” Even though I was smiling, he was NOT amused. He rolled his eyes and quickly pushed me out of the room.
I chuckled at myself, but as I went on to plan our day of indoor activities, I devised a plan to conduct a little experiment. Inspired by the Olympics, which we had been watching in between our adventures into nature, my daughter (10) recommended we have our own cabin version of the Olympics. So we made gold, silver, and bronze medals out of art paper. We decided we would compete for these medals by playing a series of games. Each game would yield a point for the winner. The first to three points would win Gold.
We played Monopoly first. My son, being a natural risk-taker, quickly bought up property and put houses on nearly everything he owned. My daughter was not far behind him. When they got low on money and began mortgaging their properties, I made a sign that said “Underwater Mortgages” and put it on the board next to their mortgaged title deeds. Soon after, I made another sign that said “This house has been seized under Eminent Domain” and began taking the houses away.
I didn’t discriminate; in an effort to avoid too much scrutiny, I “seized” my own property, too. I was not the banker, so they questioned my authority to do this. They fussed, pouted, whined, and shouted, “What are you doing, Mommy?!” When I refused to explain in an acceptable way, my daughter threatened to quit. She continued to play, but shed many tears after losing. My son went on to win the game, incidentally bankrupting both my daughter and me with exorbitantly high rent on the same piece of property.
Next, we played UNO. We’ve played this game no less than 200 times, and everyone knows the rules well. However, every time my daughter or I played a Draw Two card to my son, I made him draw four. Girls only had to draw two. He kept saying, “That is not fair!” and finally had enough and said, “You’re giving her a break just because she’s a girl.” Bingo. Nevertheless, with this gender advantage, my daughter quickly won the game.
We played a slew of games during our Cabin Olympics: Yahtzee, Pictionary, BananaGrams, and Clue. We even counted a swim race at the pool as one of our “events.” With each game came some slant that was meant to trigger in them the idea that something they earned was being taken from them without their consent. I loved that each little wrong I did to them made them mad. I did notice, however, that over time, they began to expect something to dampen their success, and their outrage diminished somewhat over the duration of the experiment. They became a bit numb to it all. If I were going to drive the message home, I would have to step up my game.
The next day, we tallied up the points, and it was time to award medals. We erected a makeshift podium out of couch cushions (mountain cabins have a lot of pull-out couches, so it turns out there are plenty of cushions). My daughter had earned Gold; I had earned Silver; and my son had earned Bronze. However, as Commissioner of the Games, I decided we would all get Gold medals. Here was the justification I shared with my daughter, who was the rightful and single owner of the Gold medal: “Your brother never wins anything, and if he doesn’t get Gold, there will surely be a fight. Plus, I don’t look good in silver.” I tried to keep it very simple.
I just knew my daughter would have a fit. But she had earned that gold medal fair and square. And how could I let him get the same medal as me anyway, when I earned more points than he did? Was I crazy? Why was I playing games so wrong all of the sudden?
My son had no objection to the change in rules, and neither did I. After all, Gold was a step up for both of us. The penalty affected only the minority (the single winner of the games), and her voice wasn’t strong enough to influence the rest of us that the new rule was unfair. She was depending on me, her representative, to do what was right for her, to stand back while she reaped the reward of her hard work, that which she had earned honestly.
Instead, I had done something extremely self-serving, something intended to appease the majority. I had abused my position of authority. I could see I was at risk of losing her trust, and the trust my children have in me is sacred, so I knew the experiment had to end there. I came clean with all that I had done to wrong them, and we had some very interesting conversations about the real definition of “fair.”
By the end of the week-long trip, having unknowingly experienced Obama policy in action – and having watched literally two dozen anti-Obama campaign ads during the Olympics primetime events – they were fairly schooled in the ideas of Capitalism and Socialism, Individualism and Collectivism. When I asked them what they thought about all my new rules in the games, I expected variations of “They were horrible!” But what I didn’t expect was for my six year old to say, “Mommy, when did you start acting like Obama?” I couldn’t help but smile at the connection he had made.
I think my kids’ future social studies teachers will be impressed with their understanding of the concepts of individual achievement and the role government plays in either supporting or hindering that success. Admittedly, I had a lot of fun conducting this little experiment, but it turned out to effectively illustrate a great lesson in American ideals. Mission accomplished.