Summer Lessons in Hippo Munching

What a happy day it was when my four-year-old daughter Emily opened a gift from my wife and I revealing a classic game from our youth. Hungry Hungry Hippos was one of our “go to” games in the mid-80s.

I remember battling it out with friends and family, frantically trying to scarf down all the marbles to assure a full-bellied hippo victory. I we played for what, to my seven-year-old brain, seemed like hours at a time.

Even though this newer version of Hungry Hungry Hippos looked cheaper and was way less sturdy than the original we played 30-years-ago, I still had enough nostalgic embers burning to be excited as we put the game together.

When all was set up, I explained the rules to Emily; that winning is achieved by gobbling more marbles than your opponent. She told me she understood. Before we knew it we were thrust into a furious round of hippo-munching smorgasbord. As soon as the marbles were devoured, we tallied up our score. “Check it out,” I said, “I’ve got three more marbles than you, I win!”

Emily’s mouth began to quiver as if her lips were emotional gates trying to stay closed. Bursting into tears she cried out, “I was supposed to win Daddy!” and goes into a classic four-year-old meltdown mode.

It occurred to me right then and there that I had never really taught Emily the idea of someone winning and losing, or the challenge of besting someone in competition. In her mind we play the game, she wins, easy peasy.

I calmed her down, wiped the tears from her eyes and began a daddy-daughter talk about another lesson in life that she needs to learn to function in this world of ours.

I simply told her “Emily, if you win at everything, then there can be no challenge for you to strive for. You can’t grow and learn from others. If you lose a game or a challenge, you just get back on that horse and try again. It helps you persevere, which means you become stronger from the experience. Daddy wasn’t trying to be mean. He just wants to challenge you and have fun. When you lose, you tell the other person good game and then we play again. Maybe you win and maybe you lose, you won’t know until the end, and that’s okay.”  

It seems ridiculous, but one of the strange things I never considered when I became a father is that you are really starting from scratch when raising your child. All the little concepts you take for granted like sharing, personal space, and winning and losing have to basically be installed through experience and time. One of the joys of parenthood is to be able be the one to make them understand and grow – even without any memory of learning the lessons yourself.

Emily ended up telling me she understood and that we had a “good game”. We played more Hungry Hungry Hippos, she won some and I won some.

It was a great moment to be Dad.

A few days later Emily ran up to me all smile and energy and said, “would you play Candyland with me?”

I said “Of course, dear.”

Emily then stiffened up and got a little serious, looked me straight in the eye and said “But this time I win, okay”?

I smiled and thought to myself, back to the drawing board, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but I am Dad and I will persevere.

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