“Why is it perfectly acceptable to push children to strive to be better than their friends academically, and publicly praise them when they succeed. But then the opposite is true in the sporting world? No losers on the field, only in the classroom I guess…”
Our friend Micah of Our Fit Family Life posted this comment on his Facebook wall in response to my last post on not pushing kids to learn school lessons (like reading) before they are ready. This generated a bit of a debate, ranging from “Dude, have you seen Trophy Kids?” to the citation of a quote: “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to to dance better than myself.” – Mikhail Baryshnikov
I’ve spent some time ruminating on this over the last few days, and I’d like to share my thoughts. I see four things at play here:
- Americans are a competitive species – and I include myself in this demographic due to a somewhat naturally competitive personality, if not by national birthright;
- We see our kids as extensions of ourselves; their success is our success, and their shortcomings reflect our failures as a parent;
- We recognize that it’s not socially acceptable to be hyper-competitive, and we look for opportunities to teach our kids about fairness and teamwork;
- We all want what we think is best for our kids.
I believe competitiveness is really at the root of all this. I recognize it in myself as a parent: Micah and his wife Julie (who are both good friends of ours) posted on their Facebook page when their ten month-old (who is just three days older than Carys) took his first steps; at the time Carys was not yet standing without holding on to a support. Alvin saw the posting first and showed it to me; the words that came out of my mouth were “good for them!” but I was thinking “I bet their kid can’t drink out of an open cup by himself like Carys can…”.
Some weeks later, a class in the Compassion Course (that I’ve previously mentioned) gave me some language to describe what was going on in my head during that episode. One of the foundations of the course is that we all have needs and feelings about those needs. Strategies are the things we do to meet needs – and there is almost always more than one strategy that can help to meet a need.
I started by looking through the feelings list to identify which ones applied – jealousy was the most obvious one. I looked at the needs list as well but I actually couldn’t find what I wanted to say on the list (which does not claim to be exhaustive): the need to think of myself as a good mother, and to be perceived as one by others as well. (As I’m writing this I see a tension here in that our parenting approach is not a common one, and as Carys gets older and more social the opportunities for other parents to perceive me as not being a good parent are going to increase exponentially:-)). I was using a strategy of competing to meet my need to think of myself as a good parent: “If I was a better parent my kid would be walking right now, but at least she has this other skill that I bet you weren’t a good enough parent to get your kid to do.”
We tend to see our children as both extensions and reflections of ourselves, and so our child’s position at the top of the class, or ability to walk first, or drink out of an open cup first becomes a reflection of our skills as a parent rather than simply our child achieving what he or she needs to, on a timeline that works for them.
But we also want to be liked, and we want our kids to be liked, and we know that people don’t like other people who are hyper-competitive (because most of us don’t like other people who are hyper-competitive). We know we need to teach kids the concepts of fairness and teamwork, but not at the expense of something as important as academic excellence. Sports thus becomes the arena in which it’s OK to give everyone a medal – because the majority of our kids are not going to become the next Serena or LeBron, so we might as well make sure that nobody else’s kid gets the medal at the expense of ours.
Those parents who think their kid actually does have the potential to be the next Serena or Lebron skip over number 3 completely; they don’t care that it’s not socially acceptable to be hyper-competitive. In fact, when we watched Trophy Kids some time ago (Alvin likes to put these kinds of things on while he’s ironing) it was painfully obvious that the majority of the parents in the movie did not care at all if others perceived them as being mean, rude, and actually generally pretty asshole-ish. There was no attempt to cover up their own competitiveness, and for most of them it was painfully obvious that the parents were attempting to attain some kind of goal through their kids that they were never able to attain for themselves.
Wanting what’s best for your kids is, I believe, a universal goal of parents – but I always like to examine whether I am intentionally trying to smooth a path in some way, or soften the experience of life so Carys doesn’t get hit by it full-force rather than letting her experience life in all its glory and sadness. As an infant, we placed her toys just out of reach, and didn’t move them closer even when it was obvious she wanted them – we allowed her the experience of struggle. When she could climb onto the sofa we allowed her to fall off it occasionally (breaking her fall when we were physically capable of doing it so she didn’t injure herself) and now she’s incredibly careful most of the time, fully able to decide for herself whether she can walk down a step or needs to sit down and shuffle off because it’s too high. She knows what her body can do and she is careful with it because she wants to be, because she respects herself and her abilities, not because I call out ‘good job!’ every time she navigates a staircase.
The parents who send their kids to the ‘everyone gets a medal’ football lessons want to make sure their kids aren’t damaged by the experience of not being the fastest runner or the highest scorer. They ignore the fact that it’s more damaging to never have the experience of failing, getting up, and trying again, as well as being OK with anything other than perfection (because isn’t that what the medal says? “You are perfect, at least in our rose-tinted view of the world”?).
In a competitive society, somebody has to fail. It’s just a fact of life. You can’t have one without the other.
So what am I doing about it?
Another class in the Compassion Course talked about the value of not judging your feelings. Feelings just are; it’s what you do about them that counts. When I feel jealousy I notice it, and I ask myself why that is and what I should do about it. It alerts me to an opportunity to know myself better and to choose strategies to achieve my and Carys’ needs that benefit us both, rather than one more than the other.
So: I shouldn’t put my need to be perceived as a good parent above her need for self-respect.
I shouldn’t presume to know where her life will take her and what education she will need when she gets there, and instead follow her lead to develop her desire to keep learning new things throughout her life.
I shouldn’t push her to do things before she is ready – either by forcing her to do things/refusing to help or by subtly giving signals that she will not receive my love and approval if she doesn’t pick what I think is the right direction.
I should trust. Both her, and myself.
In case you missed it, Part One in this accidental series is here.