"That's not fair!" - my son to his sister, while playing UNO.
"You're cheating!" - my son to his sister, while playing the card game WAR.
"You're a liar!" - my son to his sister, while playing Candy Land.
The wise lady authors say, "To lose with a smile requires first of all that you do not care too terribly about the game -- and that you must be able to take a back seat once in a while. The ordinary Six-year-old has neither of these abilities. His emotions are violent and he cares intensely about almost everything. It is almost impossible for him to take a back seat. One of the cardinal rules in his life is that he wants and needs to be first."
Yeah, that's my boy ... at least, that's him when playing with his twin sister, who is, of course, also six.
And therein lies the rub, I believe. Because his competitiveness at summer camp is clearly not as pronounced. Sure, he likes to win whenever possible. And if he keeps losing at something, he stops wanting to play it, convinced it's too hard for him. Yet this insistence that the other player beating him must be lying or cheating seems to be confined to instances when that other player is his sister.
I know this because I showed up a few minutes early to pick up my kids at sports camp one day this summer, when the campers were being awarded ribbons pertaining to their individual achievements at camp. Ribbon-giving was a weekly ritual at this camp, and every camper got a ribbon for something -- no doubt the pervasive influence of the positive self-esteem movement in American parenting. My son had come home with ribbons like "home-run derby champ," and "basketball passing MVP." But today he got one for "Best Sportsmanship." And according to the speech the counselor was giving, he'd been an all-around good sport all week -- which surely involved having to lose graciously to others.
I'd likely still be picking my jaw up from the floor if I hadn't had to get the kids home and get back to work on some deadline or other that day.
But it was that day when the light bulb clicked on for me. It's when he's playing against HER, his rival twin, that my son loses it.
And he's not wholly to blame. His sister, though mostly a sweet, gentle, kind child, even an empathetic one when her brother is injured or sad, can be downright Machiavellian if she thinks she can manipulate someone to her advantage. I've noticed her insisting on comparing and contrasting her height, her speed on her bike, her abilities in swimming, to her brother's.
Yesterday at lunch at a local deli, she and her brother both wanted my pickle. I didn't have a knife handy, so I split it with my fingers, and gave each sibling a pickle piece. It just so happened the piece I handed her happened to be a little bigger than the one I'd given to him, a fact I was hoping she wouldn't loudly trumpet to her brother once it was noticed. My hopes were immediately dashed, however. She simply had to point out that her pickle was larger, so she could relish (pun intended) this tiny triumph against the brother she nevertheless adores and from whom she draws security and strength by his very presence in her life.
Yes, apparently she, too, has to be first in everything.
The wise ladies who wrote the book suggest protecting little sore losers against playing competitive games with kids who do it better than they do, and when playing a game with them yourself, letting them win at least part of the time. So the other day, I made a point of playing a game with the boy -- luckily, it was a rare game his sister tends to lose, because it involves basic math, which he's particularly skilled at right now. She'd played one round with us both and given up. So it was just us two, which had been my original hoped-for outcome when we all sat down. I figured I'd have to let him win, but low and behold, he beat me anyway -- four times! It wasn't that I got the math wrong, but the dice seemed to favor the boy. He DID try to convince me he needed to re-roll the dice a couple of times when he didn't like what they gave him, and I nipped this in the bud on each occasion. But he won fair and square, again and again. He left the room triumphant.
As for me, I'm trying to remind myself that even grown-ups don't like to lose ... and practicing doing so with equanimity is a lifelong task. So I'll cut the boy and his sister a little slack, and hope, as six leads to seven, eight, nine and beyond, that losing AND winning with grace and respect for your opponent is going to come with maturity.
But till then, I'm damned if I'm playing UNO with those kids. They're ruthless.