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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Superpower pirates: Bonding over games of one-upmanship

“Arghhhh, ye’ve grazed me hair with yer fire sword!” I bellow in my best swarthy pirate voice.
Never mess with a boy holding a flaming sword. Especially if it can also
shoot lightning, "volcano lava," super-hard metal walls, and more.
“No, it hit you right in the face!” my 6-year-old boy fires back.

“That were afore what I conjured me an ice shield with me trusty rapier!”

This game goes on and on, shifting between remarkably versatile weapons – i.e. sticks – sheared off the same tree in the park near our home. His stick spews “volcano lava” and mine strikes back with a wall of icy water to cool the ground into smooth pāhoehoe lava that leaves me a perfect path to the boy. His stick shoots lightning toward me and I absorb it in mine, which has just become heavily grounded rubber.

I get aggressive and shoot a sheet of ice toward him. He dodges and scurries underneath the play-set to severe the supports of the ship we’re fighting on.
I screw on my stick’s welding attachment and try to cut out swathes of the ship’s floorboards so they’ll fall on him. His stick boosts him out of the way in the nick of time with a prickly rocket flare out of the “hilt.” He picks up another stick and attaches it with the first to one edge of the sinking ship to water ski toward the shoreline. I ditch the ship on the swirling slide just before it sinks into the depths to be consumed by a ravenous sea monster.

My 2-year-old girl catches the fun and asks me for one of the two sticks I’ve got as the epic battle moves onto shore. Outnumbered, the boy flees. But now the trees, once his ally by providing him the shifty switches, become the enemies as we turn our sticks into chainsaws to cut down the trees and make them fall on the boy. The boy’s massive fireballs incinerate the trees just before they land on him.

We clash swords traditionally, him backing up knowing his pirate super powers are no use against my equally amazing pirate superpowers. He whacks my knuckles with the stick.

“Ow!” I say, the make-believe world sharding out into a hundred thousand pieces instantly. “That hurt, child!”

My protests are met with giggles from the cute little 6-year-old.

This is classic one-upmanship play. All little boys do it, and some – let’s say – olda boys too. It is probably my son’s favorite way to interact with me.

Some may think there’s something wrong with one-upmanship, as in “My daddy’s better than your daddy!” And there is for certain things like that. But it’s truly a natural part of development to make one-upmanship into thrilling make-believe where all parties end up invincible by imaginative evasion.

And if one-upmanship becomes a problem outside of enchanted worlds full of magic pirates, there’s some good psychological advice to fall back on: “When you hear your child put herself on top (‘I can read better than you can!’), don't lecture her,” said developmental psychologist Marvin Berkowitz in a posting on

“Instead, help her develop the ability to see others' perspectives, to learn to cooperate, and to be kind. So instead of telling her, "You're not better than anybody else," for instance, help her focus on the consequences of her behavior. Ask her, "How do you think Jenny feels now?" and "Why do you think she feels this way?" With just a little prompting, most kindergartners can adopt a buddy's perspective.

“You can also teach your kindergartner by example. If she hears one of your friends telling you how well her son is doing with piano lessons, be supportive rather than jumping in to point out your own child's artistic talents. Later, when you and your kindergartner are alone, talk about the exchange. "Did you hear what Susan said about Stewart? I didn't want to hurt her feelings by saying 'My daughter's even further ahead than that!' so I just listened and showed her that I was happy for her."

But I’ve been lucky enough to have a little boy who mostly just wants to make one-upmanship a bonding experience – one that’s often improved our relationship. He does it with his grandpa too. They are constantly designing and counter-designing intricate weapons to obliterate each other. It’s good to know these things are just pretend – you never want to cross a young pirate with insane superpowers otherwise.

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