The other night I was playing a game of Chinese chess with my son. It’s something we do every so often since the day he asked me what the game with the funny markings was. As I watched him struggle and plot out his moves, I was reminded of an experience I had in Hong Kong shortly after I had learned to play the game.
I was sitting at a table in front of a copy-shop across the alley from the entrance to my apartment building in Hong Kong’s Causeway Way Bay district. Across the table from me sat the owner of that shop. We were engaged in one of the many games of Chinese chess that we played while I lived there. A bit of a crowd had gathered, as often they would, to watch the gwailouh (foreign-devil) play their game. In Hong Kong it was pretty common to see people playing Chinese chess, you didn’t often find a gwailouh playing though.
I was well on my way to losing the game, I usually lost. However, I always kept playing because it seemed I learned something new in every game. Around us, the people squawked at each other and at us, commenting on our play and what they thought we should do. The noise from the city filled the air as the business and traffic of our busy alleyway continued through the night. My opponent and I were unaffected by the cacophony surrounding us. We always played in this chaos. Strategizing, organizing, contemplating each other we set our pieces in motion across the board. We were the order in the chaos, the yin to the world’s yang. Only for a moment though, for he had perfected his order and won the match. With that, the chaos of the world around us came crashing in and we embraced it and celebrated his victory.
Learning to Walk
Thinking back on that day and the way my son was struggling to play as I had once I was reminded that learning to play “Chinese” chess, is called “learning to walk”, making it an excellent metaphor for life. We all must learn to walk. As we walk, we will fall. The more walking we do the more prepared we are to run. As we run, we will fall. The more running we do the more we will want to jump. As we jump, we will fall. The jumping that we will do will encourage us to fly. Everything we learn prepares us for the next step.
Fitting into their world
This has been a reoccurring thought for me of late. My kids are getting older now we are embarking on the teenage years, and it is very obvious that how I fit in their world is changing. I still definitely have a role and an important one but it isn’t the same as it was when they were small. I spent a good deal of time talking to/at my kids early on in my role as a dad. In fairness at that point, we were on very unequal footing. I had a lot of information and they had very little. They needed to know that touching the stove was not a good idea, or that looking for cars when we cross the street is important. Those sort of early teaching moments really weren’t discussions they were downloaded directions. I didn’t want them to think about those situations and decide if what I said was correct I wanted them to recognize those situations and follow the directions they were given. I really wasn’t concerned with them thinking about it I just wanted them to “do”.
Things are changing
As we have entered the teenage years there has been a shift in how we communicate. While I still have more information than they do, they are now processing my information and comparing it to their accumulated knowledge. They are beginning to think on a very serious level. It is a challenging transition. I find I am talking with them more than to them. Our learning moments are more conversational than purely instructional. The protector in me wants to download information like I did when they were three years old. I also, however, want them to be successful adults. These next few years are going to be challenging because I still have that role and responsibility to keep them safe… but maybe not too safe. I need to step back and give them a chance to use the knowledge an information they have accumulated. They have learned to walk and they might just be ready to start running. I guess that means I need to let it happen and be a soft place for them to fall. Perhaps that means I need to focus on being a source of good information for them while allowing them to think for themselves.
What is my job?
I’m not sure I know myself how I am going to do this. It has been 40+ years and I’m still learning the lessons I want them to know. So as I think about the game of chess and how to best help my sons I had this epiphany. In chess, like in life, I can’t teach them all the right things to do. Each game will be different and each experience will be different. In each game and each experience, they will learn something new (just like I have). If they do only what I tell them then they will never beat me in chess, or rather, they will never be successful. I need to adapt to how they learn now and I need to help them develop skills not just dump knowledge. It isn’t helpful to give them a guide of what to do all the time, let’s face it, that is impossible. I realized in the coming years, my job is not to tell them what to think, it is to teach them how to.