My grandson received a Foosball game for Chanukah. Blame it on a deprived childhood or insufficient funds at my university but I have never played Foosball. And one look at the game convinced me that I would not be playing to my strengths were I to undertake the challenge. I like word games – give me Scrabble, Boggle, Banana grams – and I can even make a passable effort at air hockey, but Foosball? Way beyond my skill set and comfort zone.

Nevertheless when said grandson called the other day and said “Bubby, do you want to come play Foosball with me?” I was powerless to resist. I was as inept at the game as predicted – which didn’t bother me at all and was the source of much laughter.

But it did bother my grandson. He felt badly for me and so he kept giving me breaks and trying to let me win, going so far as to score goals on my behalf. I kept telling him that it didn’t matter to me, that I was totally indifferent to whether I won or not, and he kept making it easier for me. What was going on?

While I know he didn’t get this idea from his parents, I think he just couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t want to win. As much as we try to teach our children to play “just for the fun of it”, whether it’s school or other forms of socialization or just innate, this is a foreign idea to them. They all seem to adhere to the (in)famous Vince Lombardi motto that “winning is everything.” I was touched by his sweet desire to let me win and pained by his inability to understand that I didn’t care. (Or maybe it was just seeing how bad I truly was at the game, his little heart couldn’t take it and he needed to give me a fighting chance!)

But I learned something else from this experience. I got a glimpse of how uncomfortable it is to win/succeed when you know you don’t deserve it. I realized on an experiential level that when we reward children for participation as opposed to excellence, for showing up as opposed to trying, for making any effort as opposed to accomplishing, they are embarrassed. They know they haven’t earned it. And they don’t want it. It is false currency. It is uncomfortable, and humiliating.

We should certainly praise efforts that our children make – within reason. Like when it’s sincere. When they’ve really tried. And it’s not bad to recognize that there are areas where they can’t succeed, where they don’t have the tools or the skills or the abilities. We actually cannot be anything we want to be. No matter how much I practiced, my 4’11” self could never have become a professional basketball player. Having small hands and being tone deaf, it’s unlikely I could have become a concert pianist. Being more concrete than abstract, I probably couldn’t have been a prominent physicist. That’s okay. I have to play the hand that I am dealt. And to the best of my ability.

If I don’t, then I don’t deserve reward and I don’t deserve to win. And maybe I’ll try harder next time. Or maybe I’ll turn my attention to an area of greater interest or importance.

I’m not saying that I won’t ever play Foosball again. Another phone call will probably prove equally irresistible. But I have nothing invested in improving my ability at the game or in winning. Perhaps it’s worth playing more just to convince my grandson that Vince Lombardi was in fact wrong.