The game had rules but they kept changing, of course, because making the rules, changing the rules, and winning are very important to four-year-olds.
This one was in her element: a pool, with four adults in her orbit. One adult or another, or all of us, or she herself, was to be “shark,” out to get her, or someone else, or everybody else, depending on the rule of the moment. The definition of winning also shifted from second to second, from getting to being gotten, anything to guarantee lots of chasing and splashing.
I added another layer of complication to the game by introducing “barracuda” as a second predator. “What’s a barracuda?” she asked. “A fierce fish,” I said. She immediately jutted out her jaw, exposing her sharp little teeth, though I can’t imagine where she picked that up. She had us in stitches for days with her barracuda face, which was remarkably like the real thing. (We are easily entertained.)
The rules-and-ferocity play are real to a young one, giving her some practice in developing power in a fierce, unfair world where the people in charge set the rules and keep changing them, or so it seems as you try to make sense of it all.
For reasons I can’t altogether figure out, the granddaughter has been making me a frequent target of her ferocity recently, often putting me in the bottom rung when it comes to setting rules. She’s a complicated, astute creature whose inner and outer worlds are rapidly changing, with her expanding mind, deepening emotions, and the prospect of a new sibling in a few months. I observe all this with aplomb, not taking it personally if she pulls a face and sticks out the “do-not-approach” hand when I ask a question or offer to do something with her.
Except now and then, like last night, when we were saying goodbye after a sweet family gathering in Florida, after a day of outlet mall shopping in which I bought her two-and-a-half outfits, and after a plane ride, which always leaves me exhausted and grouchy. When I am exhausted and grouchy myself, it hurts.
So, when she hugged Grandpa goodbye but refused Grandma a hug, I whined a little. “That’s not fair,” I pouted. Still, she refused, good for her, because, goodness knows, trying to force a hug out of a child when she isn’t feeling huggy toward you defeats the purpose of the hug. It becomes a duty, a rule, rather than a spontaneous expression of affection. She did offer a hug from her stuffed pig, however.
This morning I had a dream about all this. I was playing a game with family in which individuals were taking turns being blindfolded and trying to scoop as many scattered berries in our hands as we could. The winner would be the one who gathered the most berries. I was the first to take a turn. I was told to stop when I had my hands full. However, after me, I saw others scooping and scooping and nobody told them to stop, even when their hands were full. I was miffed. My family tried to console me by giving me more berries but that’s not what I wanted. “I just want the game to be fair,” I said. “I just want the same rules for everybody.”
But of course, life itself is unfair and the rules are always changing. Taking it personally when the rules change is as devilishly immature as switching them so we can always be the winners.
We must keep learning how to make truly fair rules, for sure, and insisting on them. That’s what our daughter-in-law is doing as she enters the policy world through the portal of demanding grad studies in public administration. But as she spent long hours on the computer, finishing papers and take-home exams in sunny Florida, I reflected that the hoops we jump through to get credentials can be as arbitrary and crazy-making as a pool game of Sharks, Barracudas, and Humans.
Nevertheless, if we play it right, we might at least get a handful of berries and a hug from a pig. And that barracuda face is a really good one to have in your repertoire.