When I was six years old, family friends gave us their old ping pong table. On day one, my dad handed me a paddle and it was game on. Games were to 21 and in the beginning, he would spot me 19 points. That meant I had to score only 2 points before he could score 21. He won every game. As I got bigger and better, he would spot me only 10 points. And still, he won every game. By the time I was 10, there was no more spotting of points but still, I could never beat him. The battles were fierce and I would often take the lead. But I would get so excited or nervous when I was about to win that I would inevitably miss a serve or send a slam halfway across the basement instead of straight down onto his side of the table.
It wasn’t just ping pong. My dad taught me how to body surf in the ocean before I was five. We would catch the same wave and see who could ride it farther. But even when my belly scraped up onto the sand after holding my breath for the impossibly long ride, I would look up and there he was, always in front of me. When we played cards, Gin Rummy or Casino, I would lose every game.
Seen from the outside and certainly through today’s “everybody wins” mentality, my father’s unsentimental thrashing of his child in every arena might be seen as harsh or even psychologically damaging. But that’s not how I see it. My dad was just having fun. And it was simply more fun to play ping pong against a 6-year-old when the stakes were set so that he could only lose 2 points. And wave riding was way more fun when he could look back at his competition and know for that one moment, on that one beach, for that one wave, he was the best in the world.
As a girl growing up in the 1970’s, before Title IX, before Flo Jo dominated in Seoul or Mia Hamm lead her team to victory in Atlanta, I was included. My father never let me win but he always taught me how to play better, think smarter and want to win. It never crossed his mind to exclude me. Why would he? He wanted to play and I was always willing and able to join him. Simply by including me, by not telling me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t participate, my father taught me to stand tall. In the 4th grade, I was the only girl to play in my town’s basketball league. In college, I was the only woman on my intermural softball team. I have never shied away from raising my hand in class nor stating my opinion in a business meeting. I grew up never questioning my own right to pursue any of my dreams and I never feared the hard work it took to achieve them. So, if I may make one request to dads of girls everywhere it’s this: Please take the time to hand your daughter a ball, a paddle, or a deck of cards and say “Come on. Let’s Play.”