Cotton Wool Kids

Childhood is very different now from when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In some ways it is much better. We are much more aware nowadays of the importance of preventing children from abuse, neglect and persistent bullying, although we are still a long way from getting everything right. We are getting much closer to an understanding of the concept of special needs so we can provide constructive support for children with learning, social, behavioural or physical problems rather than just criticism and punishment. For all this we should be immensely grateful.

However, I can’t help thinking that, in our praiseworthy efforts to try to ensure children avoid suffering high level bad experiences we are also being over-protective in sheltering them from low level bad experiences. This is apparent from the feedback I get when I try to persuade parents and schools to get their children to take chess seriously.

The school head teacher who, years ago, told me he couldn’t enter more than one team in our tournament because his pupils would feel humiliated if they scored less than 50%.

The school chess club, again years ago, which was unhappy that one of their children was a very strong player, because it would make all the other children in the club feel bad.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to solve puzzles at home because it might put them off chess.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to play for the school because it wouldn’t be fun.

The parents who tell me their children can’t attend the chess club because it might make them too tired.

The chess teacher who tells me her pupils can’t enter a tournament for the same reason.

The chess teacher who tells me his pupils will only play in team tournaments, not individual tournaments.

The neighbour who asks about chess lessons for her son, and, when I show her the Chess for Heroes book, tells me it looks too hard.

At the same time, children seem to think they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.

Children in school chess clubs don’t want to solve puzzles because it’s boring.

Children at Richmond Junior Club don’t want to score their games because it’s boring.

They tell me that if something’s boring they don’t have to do it.

This all seems to be about the possibility that children might just have a bad experience by taking chess too seriously. They MIGHT be upset because they lose a game. They MIGHT find it boring. It MIGHT make them tired. It MIGHT be too hard for them. So we’d better not do it, just in case a bad experience might damage their self-esteem.

If you take part in chess tournaments you WILL have bad experiences. It’s happened to all of us. You’ll have days where you play badly and lose your games. You’ll have days where your opponents all seem to play well against you. You’ll meet opponents who are unsporting, who distract you, who try to cheat against you. You’ll meet arbiters who rule against you unfairly. But you’ll also have a lot of good experiences which will more than make up for the bad ones. And by working through those bad experiences you’ll become a stronger person as well as a stronger player.

Children NEED to be challenged. They NEED to be bored. They NEED to learn how to lose. They NEED to learn to persevere when they get stuck. They NEED to learn how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. They NEED to develop determination and resilience. By wrapping children in cotton wool, by only expecting them to do things that are safe, fun or easy, by bringing our children up in a cocoon where they are sheltered from any experience which might possibly be unpleasant, we’re doing them no favours. Playing serious chess isn’t for everyone, but children who enjoy the game can use it for this purpose.

In Chess for Kids, Sam has to work through difficult situations in order to become a good player. He has to learn not to be discouraged when he keeps on making mistakes, not to give up when a concept is difficult for him to understand, to keep going if something is boring.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes partly for this reason. One way to become a hero is by showing physical courage, but you can also be a hero by showing mental courage. Of course we all want to do all we can to prevent children suffering high level bad experiences but we need to expose them to low level bad experiences and, very gently, help our children deal with them.

A failure to understand this is one of the reasons why I find myself teaching children whose parents and teachers want them to play chess but specifically don’t want them to be good at chess.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.