“That’s not fair!” These are the words that are hurled over my 6-year-old son’s shoulder after learning he hasn’t won the cooking game.
We’re hosting a houseful of kids over the winter break and they’re taking over my kitchen, creating their own recipes and competing against each other, like on the popular cooking show Chopped.
On television, when the professional chef gets the axe, the camera follows them out the door and down the hallway under the guise of getting an exit interview — but mostly just to capture the emotional moment when they lose. It’s a vulnerable time when some chefs look tough, some are crying and some look as if they prefer to hit the camera man with a frying pan.
I’m thinking that my little chef who yelled about the unfairness of it all, is the one who would be grabbing the cast iron. He usually throws a fit when he doesn’t win and is one of the first to declare the rules to be unjust, say that someone has cheated or make up an excuse for his poor results.
The rest of the crowd is used to his outbursts. Sometimes they feel a bit sorry for him when he starts crying, but kids are tougher on each other than adults — and lately the other children (his siblings especially) are not willing to give up their win just to make him happy.
As parents, we try to encourage a handshake at the end of competition, and an audible mumble of “good job,” is strongly suggested. But sometimes when a player gets angry about losing, manners are the last thing that we worry about. Calming down comes first. And sometimes that takes a while.
Sometimes my son is embarrassed about losing, sometimes he is tired, sometimes he just did his best and it wasn’t good enough.
We make a lot of excuses for him. And he makes a lot of excuses for not winning. But those excuses aren’t usually focused on what he is going to do differently next time.
So short of reminding him not to touch anyone when he is angry, we have learned to expect this kind of behavior when he doesn’t get his way. We have finally learned to just let him stomp off and feel sorry for himself some place away from us.
We’ve stopped trying to point out how hard he tried or assuring him that he might win next time. He doesn’t believe us when we tell him these things anyway and it usually leads to more of the “not fair” kind of excuse-making.
When possible, we try and pawn off judge duties to visitors like Grandma. (Grandmas are really brave.)
And we must also separate our desire to make everyone happy. Judges are not allowed to declare a tie and we are also supposed to use a point system so that no one feels like they are getting a pity win. Hard copies of the judges scores are used to defend winners since the most angry loser usually demands a recount!
Today, we are judging cookies. We steel ourselves to chop the offending dish and chef, and hope that good manners prevail and that the losers are good sports.
What a surprise this time when my son, the one who always cries foul when he loses, wins two categories (best presentation and most originality) and has avoided the chop!
He is so sure he is going to lose against his two older cousins that when it is announced he has won two out of three, he stomps off at the indignity of not taking all honors! On the way, he shoves his brother in the hallway and shouts in an angry tone over his shoulder something about the other contestants influencing the judges, and then slams the door to his bedroom.
He was so sure he wouldn’t win, that even when he did, he couldn’t accept the honor. He sabotaged his own win with his excessive worry of failure.
A friend of mine who came over to judge our friendly competition, sat in my kitchen with me in the aftermath of the outburst, sipping tea, tasting the creations the kids made, and talking about kids and fear of failure. We came to one conclusion: Kids learn best via honest feedback and less fake-fairness.
If someone hasn’t made a recipe worth eating, then it’s better to spare the niceties, no accommodations for age, no adjusting for never winning the best tasting category, no sugar-coating the unpalatable truth.
As I roll the last dessert around on my tongue, (a strange combination of oyster sauce and brown sugar), I try to find a way to say something nice. But instead, with the strength of another caring parent to back me up, I decide to follow the rules of the game, just like the rest of the world will.
Spare no chef! Spare no truth! “This cookie tastes like a fish taco,” I say. And we swallow hard and brace for the fit-throwing. “And yes, you have been chopped.”