Tic-Tac-Toe Trauma – Dealing with a Child’s Frustration with Mastering a New Skill

Summary: Sometimes explanations or assistance won’t do it and they just need to work it out themselves. Dealing with a child’s frustration with mastering a new skill.

Damn you foam rubber Tic-Tac-Toe game, damn you straight to hell!

Damn you foam rubber Tic-Tac-Toe game, damn you straight to hell!

It’s Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving and my daughter is out of school today. She’s been showing an interest in Tic-Tac-Toe lately so my partner breaks out a game board. It’s soft foam rubber material and you place the pieces on the board.

My partner beats her once again.

“You need to look at what I’m doing too. You just can’t focus on getting three in a row. You need to stop me from getting three in a row as well.”

They repeat this over and over until my daughter starts to figure it out. More often than not, the games begin to end in ties.

You’d link she’d be happy but my daughter get’s so frustrated that she starts crying because she’s not winning.

“You always win!”

“There’s no need to cry. This means you’re getting good.”

“But I want to win too!”

Look, I’m not winning, it’s a tie. Neither us are winning. A tie means we’re both really good players. If it ends in a tie it’s kind of like we both won.”

Now she’s blubbering on the floor.

“Don’t wipe your tears and your nose on the carpet. Get up and get a tissue”

More crying.

“Look if you are good at Tic-Tac-Toe and the other person on also good at Tic-Tac-Toe, it will always end in a tie. It can’t be won. Having a tie is the same as winning.”


“If you beat someone else it means you know how to play but the other person doesn’t.”

More sobbing.

Forget it, I’m not going to try and play this game with a crying child.”

“No, no, no…I want to play some more!”

“Then get off the floor, stop crying and get over here.”

A couple more games and it starts all over again.

“That’s it, I’m done.”

I wish I could say this is an unusual reaction to frustration borne out of not mastering a skill as fast as she thinks she should, but I can’t. At least this breakdown was in private. In public it’s kind of uncomfortable.

Last year, when my was daughter five, she was determined to master the arm over arm monkey bar routine. You know the one. It’s where you swing out with one arm and then grab the next ring, then swing and grab the other ring, repeating till you reach the end.

Except she couldn’t seem to get the motion down. She would just hang and drop or miss and fall. At each failed attempt she would get more and more frustrated.

“You want to some help?”

“No, No!”

“Ok I’ll sit over here then.”

“No, help me!”

“Uh, ok.”

She starts to go across and gets stuck. I begin to help her.

“Don’t touch me, don’t touch me!”


“Help me!”

What?, OK, now hold on…”


So I just stand there why she flails and cries and screams until she falls to the ground.

“Ok, I think you’re done”


She climbs back up. Now she’s all red in the face and tears are streaming down.

“Don’t help me.”

“I won’t”

“Go way!”

“Ok, I’ll just sit over there until you’re finished”

I look at her from the bench.


“Ok fine.”

I turn my head to the side and watch her out of the corner of my eye.

She’s full on bawling now and she begins again. She gets stuck right away and just screams and wails. Very gutteral. Like she’s being killed. She falls.

She repeats this another four or five times.

The mom’s around me are giving me really wierd looks. I just shrug and say,”this is how she is sometimes, she just needs to work it out on her own.”

Needless to say, the moms don’t approve.

That dads, well they just think it’s funny and totally get what’s happening. No judgement there.

Eventually she drops to the ground for the last time and just lays there like a corpse. Exhausted, whimpering, face down in the sand.

About ten minutes later she gets up, comes over and says “I’m hungry, let’s go to the Taqueria.”

We repeat this cycle for another five or six visits. Each time I get better at “not helping” and each time her meltdowns happen quicker but are also shorter in duration. And each time it gets funnier. On the last visit she even laughed at her own tantrum and finally crossed the monkey bars. About time.

Yeah, being a parent is so fucking enriching and wonderful that sometimes I just break down in tears of joy.

That’s it for now.

File Under: Child Frustrations With Learning New Skills – Child Learning Frustrations – Kids Mastering a New Skill – Dealing With Tantrums

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