Of all the inane children’s board games I’ve been forced to play with my 3 and 6-year-old sons, the worst, as far as I’m concerned, is Chutes and Ladders.
Here’s why I don’t like Chutes and Ladders: it requires absolutely no thought or skill. (The same is true of Candy Land, but at least with that game, I can fantasize about eating my way down a candy cane lane strewn with gumdrops). In Chutes and Ladders, you are completely and totally at the whim of the spinner.
If you’re lucky enough to spin a number that gets you to a ladder, you get to move way up the board towards the finish. If, however, your spin lands on a number that gets you to a chute, you tumble back down the board again, towards the start. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, until one of the players manages to climb to the top of the board, reaching the finish and claiming victory.
When I last played this game with my younger son it occurred to me: Chutes and Ladders is a lot like parenting.
As a parent, you’re constantly navigating ups and downs, wins and losses. And as in Chutes and Ladders, many of these wins and losses often seem to come at random and without warning.
Ladder: My kid wins Yankees tickets and smiles for days!
Chute: My kid had an accident in his pants on the soccer field.
Ladder: My kid high-fives a life-sized Olaf at an event and now believes he has touched greatness!
Chute: My kid wants applesauce, but there is no applesauce readily available—so an epic meltdown ensues.
Parenting is not like other pursuits. With other pursuits, you practice, you get better. You read books, you take classes, and your performance improves. This is true of gardening, knitting, pilates or yoga.
But this is not true of parenting.
You can read 50 books on parenting and still feel like an amateur.
This is in part because no book can prepare you for every situation in which you’ll find yourself with your kids. And kids change all the time. The second you feel like you’ve mastered your kid, they suddenly change into someone entirely different.
This is also because, while you may have some control over your own kids, you have no control over many of the environments in which they find themselves. I can’t do much about the third grader who is annoying all of the first graders at aftercare.
I have no control over the lifeguard who blows his whistle too loudly during swim practice, or the parents who have the audacity to serve cranberry juice instead of apple juice at their kid’s birthday party.
After experiencing a series of chutes, we parents can end up feeling like those dogs in the famous psychology experiment, who, after repeatedly trying in vain to jump their way out of a box to avoid shock, eventually just lay down and surrender, in a state of learned helplessness.
We, too, may wish to just give up and cower in the corner.
When we feel helpless, it can be so hard to remember that there are certain things we can control as parents, specific actions we can take that will help us and our kids make it up some of the ladders.
We can teach our kids how to be kind, caring individuals, and how to stand up for themselves.
We can cheer for them as they pursue after-school activities that are meaningful to them.
We can console them when they’re hurt or disappointed.
We need to fight the impulse to lay down like helpless dogs, much as we might want to at times. We must keep trying to control what we can, to make it up the ladders that seem scalable. And once we’re up those ladders, we must savor the moment.
We must celebrate those times when our preparedness, book reading and teachable moment-ing actually pays off. Because there will soon be chutes, moments when we stand there, helpless, as our houses get trashed or our spirits get broken. We have to face those chutes, and then dust ourselves off and start trying to climb the ladders again.
At this point, my personal goal is to feel like I’ve experienced more ladders than chutes. I think that’s the most that I—or any parent, for that matter—can hope for.
I hope to get there someday. If not, look for me on Candy Cane Lane. I’ll be the one passed out from a sugar crash in the chocolate fountain.