Yesterday was Sports Day for my older son. As a parent volunteer, I dressed in a pair of red jeans and led a group of color-coordinated kids around the schoolyard, encouraging them to do their best ‘throwing the hopper’, shooting baskets, and skipping rope. They ran and jumped and shot their little hearts out. At the end of a long afternoon they bounced a football on a parachute for five minutes, slowly wilting in the sun. I yelled myself hoarse cheering them on, rallying them to go faster, try harder, keep going. Parent captains kept score, tallying points for how fast and how many baskets and adding extra points for team spirit. Throughout, Team Red kept asking me what the score was. Were they winning? Behind? Close? At the end the afternoon, my Reds waited to find out who had won. The parent coaches waited to find out who had won. The teachers running the events waited to find out who had won.
And then we all had to suffer through the inevitable preachy platitude. That sticky sweet statement.
There is no one winner today, because WE’RE ALL WINNERS!
In life, there are winners. And if there are winners, by default, there are losers. You can call them non-winners if you like. Participants. Competitors. Event Attendant. But when it comes right down to it, down to those sharpened brass tacks we are so careful not to step on these days, there are winners and there are losers. And kids….well kids KNOW this. They know it instinctively.
Most kids are natural competitors; they want to succeed, they want to excel, they want to do their best. They want to win. And for years now, we have been insulting them by assuming they can’t handle losing. As much as my Red Team wanted to win the whole shebang, dance around for a minute and gloat that they were the champions and they would rock you, they weren’t about to go out and loot the computer lab if they lost. They were happy being out in the sunshine, screaming themselves hoarse with their friends, skipping out on math, enjoying a popsicle at the end of the day. They still wanted to win though. Yet here we were telling them that the reward for doing their best, for trying their hardest, should be the pride they felt in knowing they did their best. A pretty sophisticated and complex expectation for a bunch of grade schoolers.
And while nothing is wrong with kids feeling proud about doing their best, there is also nothing wrong with winning. We are so busy shielding them from failure in the cloak of self-esteem boosting that we are lying to them, so caught up in bubble-wrapping our children from the facts of life that we are doing them a disservice. Under the guise of protecting them, we are actually harming them.
I excelled in school. I was a model, straight A student who passed papers in on time. I was the one who got the symbolism in English Lit class, who took Latin and generally found academics enjoyable and easy. But I sucked at sports, and at geometry. And at sewing. I was rewarded for my academics, with medals and honors and eventually, a scholarship. The high school quarterback, who didn’t excel at English Lit but was really, really good at completing passes, was also rewarded with a scholarship, double mine. No one told me that well yes, you did well in English class, but you won’t receive a scholarship because, well, we’re all winners. No one told the quarterback that he couldn’t hoist the Tri-Valley League Championship trophy because, well, the other team’s feelings might be hurt. In our ongoing quest to make the world a fair and equitable place for our children, we are taking something away from them. Not only kids who excel, but from the ones who don’t as well.
The dyslexic boy who struggles with reading but can bend it like Beckham? When we tell him everyone is a winner, we are belittling HIS talent. The girl with the glasses who is always picked last in gym class but wins the 3rd grade spelling bee by spelling P-O-I-M-E-N-I-C-S? When we hand out equal medals of participation, we are taking away from HER pride and sense of achievement in what she excels at. We are so worried about making sure that everyone feels good about themselves, we’re sucking the life out of our kids. We’re taking away the drive that those kids who AREN”T good at something may feel to go out and find the talent they do have. The thing they are good at, the thing they excel in. If everyone is treated equally for everything they do, you take away a desire to do your best. There is no sense of achievement or pride. There is an adult sized pat on the back and a over-enthusiastic well done.
Kids don’t want “Well-done”. They want to know that their hard work paid off. They want to win.
We are selling our kids short, and by doing so, we are setting them up for a lifetime of anxiety and failure. Because eventually, whether it’s in middle school, college, or the work place; in relationships or sports or academics, or just life itself, they are going to learn that the world is not a fair and equitable place. That everyone gets a popsicle at the end of the competition is great, but there’s also nothing with wrong someone coming in first. There is nothing wrong with being proud of that, or, for those that didn’t win, having the experience fuel the desire to do better next time. Far from taking away from the efforts of the teams that didn’t win, we are doing more damage to the self-esteem of the ones who did win and are made to hide their pride at winning.
We are living in an age of over-parenting which sees us censoring fairy tales because they are “too scary”. We are shunning classics like Huckleberry Finn because they use racial slurs. Parents go broke inviting the entire class to a birthday party because someone’s feelings may get hurt. We get swept along with the current trend of not opening gifts during a party because another child may get jealous, or God forbid, be bored. How are our children going to learn to negotiate the world, to drive themselves forward, if we keep putting the brakes on their experiences?
We are not just bathing them in hand sanitizer anymore, we are sanitizing their lives.
My red team at Sports Day didn’t want to hear that they were all winners–they wanted to hear THEY had won. But, they would have been perfectly content if Team Pink had won instead.
Kids get it. It’s the adults that have lost our way.