This summer Polly and Pip have started looking older to me. It’s been about two years since this last happened. When they were four and six respectively, they started losing the softness around their stomachs and growing longer limbs. Now, those limbs are becoming more and more muscular. Polly’s arms slope outward at the shoulder, and Pips legs have gotten tautly bunched above and below the knees. Their faces have changed, too. They’re more engaged and articulate, more complex. They’re no longer cute. I look into their eyes, and I expect a level of sophistication from them that I never had expected before.
It is not a coincidence that as Pip and Polly have come to look increasingly older, Ava and I have come to expect a greater level of responsibility from them. We’ve started asking them to take on more aspects of household maintenance – helping with dishes, making beds, laying out clothes for school the next day, cleaning bathrooms. We haven’t made any big speeches about these things or tried to tie them to particular ideas like “being older” or “being in first/third grade.” Instead, we’ve just started asking them more often to do things to help us out around the house. Right now it’s actually kind of fun because things like filling the water jugs or cracking eggs or tearing up lettuce for salad are new activities for the kids. They get to figure out how to do them and what these previously unknown experiences feel like. Plus, Polly and Pip both like feeling useful and we make a big deal out of how helpful they are being. I imagine all of this will get harder once the novelty has worn off.
This gradually emerging sense of being older is bringing with it some bittersweet moments for the kids as well. A couple of mornings ago just before school started up again, I was making lunch in the kitchen while Pip and Polly were hanging out together in the living room. They were playing a kids’ version of the classic game Mastermind in which each player has a secret stack of different animals and the opponent has to deduce the order of the stack by asking questions such as “Is the lion above the giraffe?” or “is the penguin below the monkey?”
Now, we’ve been playing games like Memory, Go Fish, Bingo, and Chutes and Ladders for several years, and usually Polly’s interest in these games trends towards being silly with them rather than trying to win them. She likes messing around with patterns, making goofy faces, laughing at odd coincidences that come along. It isn’t that she doesn’t like to win, but she’s never gotten particularly invested in winning as a measure of whether something was fun or not.
But that morning was different. Whether it was because the game came from Grandma or because it involved animals – her self-proclaimed area of expertise – or because it was just her time, that morning Polly decided winning was important. She was going to be the Mastermind champion or the world was going to end.
This development wasn’t terribly surprising. When Pip was six years old, we started playing Checkers together, and it was one of the more tortured experiences of his life. Because he had never played a game through to the end, he couldn’t see past the immediate visceral emotion of each and every move. He would gloat over every successful jump and get teary every time he lost a checker. I was constantly having to coax him along by making silly mistakes that gave him a jump or by offering obvious hints about where he might best move to get closer to getting kinged. This coaxing I found to be especially hard because I wanted to try out some of my own strategies to see how they would work. I wanted to be able to win. But I also wanted to keep playing. I was enjoying thinking through things and talking with Pip over the game board, and if I always pounced on Pips mistakes he’d get so frustrated he never come back to the game again. I struggled constantly with finding the balance and often finished an evening feeling like I’d done more harm than good.
Listening in from the kitchen while I flipped grilled cheeses in the skillet, I heard the sound of Polly celebrating as she won the first two games. She was jumping up and down happily while Pip clicked the animal tiles back into the pile. A few minutes later as I went to pull some bananas from the fruit bowl, I was surprised to hear Pip bellow like an elephant and subsequently give a gentle lion’s roar. Following another celebratory dance by Polly things seemed to get quieter and more serious. I put some corn on the stove to cook and tried to listen in to the background of their game but all I could hear was the volley of questions – “Is your hippo above your peacock?”, “No. Is your snake below your alligator?” Then while the corn was finishing up, there came this huge wail from Polly. A moment later, Pip came around the corner with tears in his eyes, saying “I just wanted to win once Daddy and now she won’t play anymore.”
He had held back for three full games, coaxing Polly along, giving her hints, watching her celebrate when she won. He had played my role and had done it well. They were having fun together, talking and playing, but there was this little bug in the back of his mind. He wanted his chance to win, too. He wanted to be able to turn it all lose and just play the game and not worry about the larger picture for a few minutes. And so he did. And he won. And now he was feeling hollow and horrible because Polly’s aura of invincibility had been shattered and she didn’t want to play anymore while all he really wanted was to go back to the genial back and forth they’d had going while she was winning. He was miserable because this is exactly what he knew would happen and yet he couldn’t quite rein himself in and let her keep winning.
Pip and Polly haven’t played Mastermind again since that morning. I don’t know whether that’s because of how things ended that day or because they got distracted by other games (we’ve been playing a lot of Uno recently). Whichever the case, they’re both a bit older now. Polly got an exposure to handling sudden reversals of fortune which will hopefully make the next one easier to deal with. Pip began to figure out a new complication when it comes to playing games. In both cases I think they are getting another step closer to the kind of people we ultimately want them to be.