It's Sunday morning. Joan's off at yoga. Justin is still asleep. Emily and I are the only ones up. She says, "Let's play, I Spy Go Fish." It's a hip version of the old card game-full of neat, artistic pictures of fire trucks, pine cones, frogs, doggies, clowns, bees, and other things. There's two of each, and the objective is to get as many pairs as you can.
I tell Emily I'll play, but that I need to shower first. "Do you want to set up the cards while I take my shower?" Amenable, she sits down and starts sorting through the cards, a task she's still happily engaged in when I return from my shower.
We sit down to play. I see that Emily has already picked out all her favorite cards. They're laid out in front of her. "These are my cards," she says, "Now you pick yours."
I smile. You never quite know how the game is going to play when you play with Emily. It's obvious right off the bat that Emily's agenda is different than what the game manufacturers originally had in mind. She's not interested in how many pairs she ends up with; she just wants to collect all her favorite cards. Ending up with all of the cute animals is at the heart of her game.
Rather than attempting to deal out the cards, I count the number of cards she's chosen for herself, and pick the same number for myself. I hold mine in a fan, as I would if I was playing poker or rummy. Emily's cards are spread open-faced before her on the rug. I memorize the cards she's chosen because I don't want to ask her for any that she has (unless she offers them to me). Emily likes saying, "Go fish!" and I plan on giving her lots of opportunities to do so.
"Emily, why don't you match up the pairs you have already?" I suggest. "That way you won't ask me for cards you don't need." Emily dances around the cards, picking up two ducks, two bunnies, two fish. She always makes sure she has those cards. "Put them over there," I say, and she lines them up in a row.
"Okay, Emily, you go first. Ask me for something."
"Do you have any horsies?" she asks.
"No, go fish."
She picks up a card, and announces happily, "It's a doll!" Emily always announces her cards. The idea of hoarding and hiding things hasn't yet found its way into her consciousness. Then she adds, "Mama, you can ask me for the racecar now." It's one of the cards she doesn't like.
"Emily, do you have the racecar?"
She skips over to me like a bird. "Here it is!" she sings, handing it over. She's as delighted to be giving something away as she is to receive.
"Your turn," I say.
"Mama, do you have any ducks?"
"Emily, you already have both ducks. See, they're right over there. Ask me for something else."
"Do you have any horsies?"
"Nope. Go fish."
Emily picks a card, doesn't like it, and picks another. She doesn't like that one either. She keeps picking until she finds one she likes. "I got the frog!" she yells, exultant. To her, the frog is like winning a Lotto jackpot.
I glance at her cards to make sure I don't ask for anything she has. "Emily, do you have any pine cones?"
"Go fish!" she says, delighted at her power to make me do something.
I fish, taking my time and peeking at the cards so I can find Emily's missing horsie. I sneak it on to the top of the stack, and pick a fire engine for myself. "Your turn, I say.
She tiptoes over and I savor the feel of her sweet, warm voice in my ear, "Do you have any horsies?" she whispers. I can't believe how much I love this child.
"Go fish," I tell her. Then I add, innocently, "Emily, why don't you take this one?" I say, pointing to the card I've just planted on top of the stack.
She turns it over and screams delightedly, "I got the horsie!" Then, "Your turn, Mama."
"Do you have any fire trucks?"
I do. I pick the other frog. She sees it as I raise the card into my hand. Her lip immediately starts to quiver. In a plaintive voice: "But I wanted that one!"
"Okay, Emily. Want to trade? How about if you give me your bee and I give you the frog?"
"Okay," she sings, easily appeased. She dances over with the bee. I hand her the frog. If only all disputes in life were resolved this easily.
I remember a couple of years back, my mother and I had a run-in my over a board game she was playing with Justin. He was busily inventing his own rules, which were always to his advantage, and my mother, who is a competitive game player from way back, took offense. She said to me, "You can't give in to a child all the time. You're teaching him he can have everything his way. If he doesn't learn to play by the rules, no one will want to play with him!"
I argued that he was only five, and what difference did it make? Now I laugh, remembering that argument. Justin, who's now seven, is such a stickler for rules that woe be to you if you bend them a fraction of an inch. Playing a game with him is like being under the surveillance of a inflexible taskmaster. Justin watches each game like a hawk, alert to the slightest infraction. Rules are rigorously enforced, fairness is what matters, and victory reigns supreme. "I won!" Justin shouts triumphantly at the end of the game. "I have eleven pairs! I beat you!"
"Great, Justin!" I say, congratulating him. And the truth is-Emily and I don't care. We never count pairs at the end of our games.
Playing with both kids at the same time is rather entertaining. I have to mediate Emily's love of cute animals with Justin's need to play by the rules. I tell him he can win, but that he can't gloat, and usually, I slip Emily a few of her favorite cards on the sly. Sometimes Justin softens enough to say, "Here, Emily, here's the duck card you love." When he hands it to her, she lights up at his generosity, he is rewarded by one of her beatific smiles, and in the end, he still gets to win. Twelve pairs to six.
It's all just part of the game.
Laura Davis is a nationally syndicated columnist and the co-author, with Janis Keyser, of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years (Broadway Books, 1997). Laura and Janis are currently writing a book for the parents of elementary school children. Laura is the mother of seven-year-old Justin, three-year-old Emily and stepmom to twenty-two year-old Daniel. Out of respect for the privacy of her family members, they are being identified by pseudonyms in this story.