Teaching My Son Chess Taught Me to be a Better Dad


Chess With a month left to go in the summer, my son cashed in a summer reading prize in an unexpected way: he got a chess board. I hadn’t played chess since I was a kid, so I was excited to refresh my memory in order to teach him how to play. 

We spent a quiet afternoon learning together, memorizing the rules for each piece and some new concepts that I never learned as a kid. (Who knew there was a thing called “castling”? Apparently everyone.) In our typically busy home, learning to play chess together gave us the quality time that my son and I had been missing for a while. 

I loved that chess was calm and challenging. We could spend 45 minutes playing one game. I couldn’t remember the last time he and I spent 45 minutes together doing one thing. (Had we ever?)

A few weeks later, we were visiting relatives, and my son brought his chess set along. His cousin, who is two years older, asked if he could learn to play. My son excitedly taught him everything, and the two were off and playing. I couldn’t believe that my six-year-old could teach someone to play chess. What concentration and patience!

About an hour into their time playing, my son began to brag about how good he was at chess. He knew the rules a little better, so of course he’d win more of their early games. But no one likes a boastful winner. 

As he continued to pump his fists in the air and say, “I’m the best at chess,” I turned to him, pointed in his face, and yelled, “Don’t do that! No one wants to play with someone who does that!” He dropped his eyes for a moment, said, “Okay,” and then returned to the game. 

Within a few minutes, he was saying the same thing, bragging and cheering himself. Clearly, I failed. Not only was what I said not true (they kept playing, right?), but all I did was yell and say he was wrong. If you’re like me, then every time you yell at your kid, you feel terrible afterwards. Here I was trying to teach an important lesson and failing miserably. 

With my son bragging again, I tried something different. I knelt to his level, looked in his eyes, and said, “How do you think you would feel if your cousin won and did what you were doing? Would that make you feel good? Would you want to keep playing? Imagine that you were your cousin right now. How would you feel?” He said, “No, I would feel bad.” 

We talked about thinking about others’ feelings for a minute, and then they kept playing. My son didn’t brag again that day. 

Those two moments put in bold relief the need for empathy. My first try wasn’t about empathy. It was about punishing a behavior. It didn’t require my son to think about himself or others. My second try did, and that’s what got results. 

Does my son still think he’s the greatest chess player? Probably. He’s six, brimming with confidence. The lesson learned is more for me. I needed to think about my son so that he could think about his cousin. Yelling wasn’t for him, it was for me. Yelling let me crudely vent my frustration and stop his action. But talking to him about others helped everyone. 

We’re all works-in-progress, as parents, kids, humans. If we can stop ourselves in a heated moment and think about others, then we can all become a little better.