In our house, a game of Chutes and Ladders can last up to an hour. No, not because we keep landing on chutes and never ladders, although that certainly doesn’t help. It is, rather, that my 4-year-old finds the illustrations on the board endlessly fascinating, and asks endless questions about them. For the uninitiated, landing on a chute sends you back spaces, and landing on a ladder moves you ahead. Simple enough, right? Not for my son. Because each chute and each ladder is illustrated by an action that results in either a positive or negative outcome. Reach up to a high shelf to get some cookies (when you have presumably been told not to)? Wham! Down the chute you go, crashing in a heap of broken crockery and cookies at the bottom. Shame, shame, shame. Same with teasing a cat — down the chute, nursing your wounds at the bottom after you’ve gotten your just desserts from Mr. Tinkles.
“What did that boy do?” my son asks me, wide-eyed, pointing at the sad, bandaged boy sitting next to a satisfied, dare I say smug, little cat.
“Oh, he pulled the kitty’s tail,” I say, pointing at the picture at top of the Chute. “So the kitty scratched him.”
“Why did he pull the kitty’s tail?” he asks, eyes even wider.
In the midst of a simple board game for pre-schoolers, I suddenly find myself heading into a discussion of morality that goes beyond the basic “hitting-isn’t-nice-share-your-toys” variety and moves right into motivation: Why DID the boy pull the kitty’s tail?
I am momentarily stumped. My son stares at me, waiting for an answer.
“Some people aren’t very nice to animals…” I begin.
Oh, geez, I think. Because they themselves were mistreated? Because they lack empathy? I settle for, “They think it’s funny to tease animals, but that’s not nice, is it?”
“No!” he agrees with fervor. Much to my relief.
Then he sees the flip-side to the cat-tail-pulling scenario: a little boy rescues a cat stuck in a tree, and is rewarded with a trip up the longest ladder on the board, landing a mere 14 squares away from the finish line. “Look, mommy. What did that boy do?”
“He helped the kitty get out of the tree,” I say. “See how scared the kitty is? But look at the top of the ladder.”
My son scrutinizes the picture of the boy and the cat. Unlike other “reward” drawings on the board, this one has nothing tangible, like a trip to the movies, or ice cream. It appears the reward is a happy, safe, friendly kitty.
“The kitty AND the boy are happy now,” he says emphatically, “because the boy was nice to the kitty.”
In other words, kindness is its own reward. “That’s right,” I tell him.
I’m not sure he completely understands the importance of altruism at this age. But my hope is that by reinforcing the idea whenever it comes up, kindness will become second nature to him.
As we put away the game and move on to another activity, I look at the box and see the age recommendation: 3 and up.
I smile, glad that there is no cut-off age — I can always use a reminder about the importance of kindness.