The Importance of Coming Last

My (almost) ten year-old has been out-thinking and out-smarting me since he was about five. His level of self-awareness both scares the shit out of me and makes me think I’ve done a pretty kick ass job of raising someone in touch enough with their own emotions to say things like “I think I was feeling frustrated and I got upset and I took it out on you when I shouldn’t have.”

Right?

Anyway…that level of self-awareness comes hand in hand with a (sometimes too) keen sense of how others view him. The other day he had a swimming thing at school. He is…not a great swimmer. In fact, I often refer to his swimming more as ‘not drowning’ as opposed to swimming. The fact that he’s never been taught how to swim efficiently is one of my failings–a decidedly NOT kick-ass series of parenting decisions.

Anyway….he confided in me (and hey, this doesn’t go beyond you and me, right?) that he was worried about coming in last. This kid is a worrier. The older one walks through life with a natural assumption that wherever he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Not so the little one. He was worried he’d be last, that his friends would tease him, that he would be embarrassed, that his swim time would be broadcast on a billboard in Times Square, etc.

Someone’s got to be last, I said. And then we did our worst case scenario game.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you lose the use of your limbs? Would we ask you to go live with another family? Would you stop having food or a house or even things you want but don’t need? Would your friends stop being friends with you? Would your teachers yell at you?

And on and on. We finally ended up at might be embarrassed. Ok, I asked, how long do you think you’d be embarrassed for? A year? Six months? A day? Ten minutes? Nod. So now count up all the minutes in your life. We’re talking about ten minutes where you might feel embarrassed. You can do ten minutes.

And we left it at that. As I turned out the light, I told him if he came in last, I’d buy him some ice cream. A last place treat.

Here’s a confession (between you and me, right?): It never occurred to me he’d come in last. He’s notoriously hard on himself. I just assumed he was exaggerating. 

“Guess what?” he said that afternoon as he trudged up the stairs.

“What?”

“I came in last.”

At first I thought he was just in it for the ice cream, trying to pull the chocolate wool over my eyes. But nope. He came dead last.

We talked. We went to the store and picked out ice cream. And here’s one of those funny parenting realizations: I was prouder of him for coming last than I would have been if he’d come in first.

It’s easy to be first. That’s not to diminish the hard work that often goes into being first, or even to minimize the natural talent that propels some to first. What I mean is that the emotions which come from winning, from being first, are easy to navigate: joy, happiness, accomplishment. We applaud them, we promote them, we teach our kids to strive for them. All good stuff.

We never encourage our kids to strive to be last, even though the emotions they must navigate by coming in last are just as important: resilience, determination, acceptance. And, in my son’s case, overcoming the anxiety of the worst case scenario that circles in his head like a boogeyman.

We do these worst case scenario exercises from time to time, usually when we’re lying in the dark together. But it’s not often his worst case scenario transpires.

So this time he got to live through his fear. He came in last. Times were written out, everyone could see he came in last. And…he got through it.

By coming in last he learned something that coming in first, or even somewhere in the middle was never going to offer. He learned that coming in last isn’t the end of the world. He didn’t give up. He pushed through the fear of failing. He learned that the things he feared the most, the niggling worries that circled his mind, didn’t happen. His friends didn’t make fun of him. Even if they had, it would have been a lesson for him. We must all learn to withstand gentle ribbing, and yes, even some not-nice teasing. Had he not placed last, those fears would have kept going round and round in his head until the next time.

And who knows, maybe he’ll place last next time too. But I’m guessing he won’t fear it as much because he survived it.

It may seem like an exaggeration to talk about kids and worst fears, but you’ve got to remember, for most of these kids, who lead lives where their biggest challenge is finding a pair of clean socks, these are their worst fears. The who and what of those fears will change. Coming in last will give way to being made fun of by classmates, being part of the rumor mill, getting rejected by a crush, not landing a job. The losses will become bigger in scope, but the lessons learned by failing, or by coming in last, are the same. The feelings you must navigate don’t change too much.**

What coming in last will teach him is that the reality of failure or loss is almost never as bad as what you imagine in your head. The monsters under the bed are never as scary when you shine a flashlight on them. Something that no matter how many times I tried to explain it, was never going to be as clear as experiencing it.

Loss, failure, they are important. It seems counter-productive, sure. As parents, none of us are out there actively encouraging our kids to fail or come in last. And yet the lessons they learn by facing down their worries and rising above them, and yes, by coming last? Sometime those are the most important lessons of all.

Plus, you know. Ice cream.

**I am by no means minimizing the devastating effect that trauma or bullying can have on kids,  but speaking of the everyday losses and failures that many children face in their day-to-day lives.

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19 thoughts on “The Importance of Coming Last

  1. Ray V. January 21, 2018 / 6:43 pm

    As a child, I was tall, skinny, uncoordinated and wore braces on my legs like Forest Gump. Until late in high school, I was always the last person chosen for sports teams. I was the last kid standing. I dealt with it I suppose, but it taught me how to be a gracious loser. By doing so, I became a gracious and understanding winner when I started running marathons and playing competitive tennis as an adult. I took it all in stride. My three daughters are all much better athletes than I was at their age, but I have stressed the importance of learning to be a gracious loser and winner. It looks as if you have imparted the same lesson. Good job.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dina Honour January 21, 2018 / 8:10 pm

      I do think the lessons, although they suck when you’re in the midst of them, serve us well in life. You remembered the feeling of being picked last, so that was transferred to your graciousness when you won. I imagine that there was a fair bit of determination when you started running to show that little kid who was picked last what he had amounted to as well–all of which you may not have had if you hadn’t experienced those losses. It’s hard. It sucks. Childhood is golden, but it’s dark and scary as well.

      I’m doing the best I can, which is all we can ask of anyone, be it in a swimming pool or as a parent.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Melanie McNeil January 21, 2018 / 6:44 pm

    Shared with my family, full of highly-capable grandkids who are don’t experience poor performance or “failure” often. Thanks.

    Like

    • Dina Honour January 21, 2018 / 8:07 pm

      It’s hard. I mean, as parents you want to protect your kids from all those things….but, those are the same things that build resilience and grit. They’re the things that get you through life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Melanie McNeil January 21, 2018 / 9:20 pm

        When my son was little, his soccer team won EVERY game. Then things changed and they won less often. Then he played baseball and his first team won EVERY game. Then things changed and they were not very good. We encouraged him to look at it as a character-building opportunity. At least that was something he could tell himself to get through it, similar to your word-tactics to help your son. Then he was in ROTC and went to leadership training and got a so-so evaluation. And later he went to his pilot training and was at the top of the class. Having the range of experiences does help build resilience, just as you say. Being the worst ALL THE TIME sucks, really. But being the worst now and then? We can all get through that.

        Like

      • Dina Honour January 24, 2018 / 8:07 pm

        Exactly! No one wants their kid to have to face being last or failing all the time. But I honestly think never facing that can be harmful as well. Because eventually we ALL face failure or loss, and never having dealt with and experienced smaller, manageable losses, it can be devastating.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Sheri January 21, 2018 / 8:51 pm

    Dina— Could I have your permission to use this with my three creative writing classes?

    I would like them to read it for how you write and deliver your point, but I also want them to reflect on it and respond. Have only been thinking about this for five minutes, but I might have them write some advice to their future child. (They are juniors and seniors. Many of them will have a child within the next five years. One will be a father within the month.) My other reason is to plant the seed and get them thinking about the emphasis placed on winning, high grades/honor roll, and other achievements, the effects of that emphasis, and being at the opposite end of the spectrum than those who get all the positive reinforcement.

    Like

    • Dina Honour January 24, 2018 / 8:08 pm

      Of course, Sheri. I would be honored. Good luck with your lessons–it’s hard to get teenagers to listen to any advice, I’d imagine!

      Like

  4. Lindsay M Davis January 22, 2018 / 12:29 am

    You are an amazing mother! I might have to use the “Worst Case Scenario Game” to help me confront my own daily anxiety 🙂

    Like

    • Dina Honour January 24, 2018 / 8:03 pm

      It seems to help a 10 year old boy. For now anyway! But you know, parenting is one of those things where just when you think you’ve got something that works, the dang kid ups and changes on you!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Deepika January 22, 2018 / 3:50 am

    I always wanted to be first and the best at everything I do. I considered myself the best in primary school but in high school I realised that there are people better than me and that everyone couldnt be first. I lost self-esteem and self-confidence. I was conscious of my poor grades which were not poor but rather good but compared to others they were less good
    Now, I just do the best that I can without comparing myself to others though it can be hard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dina Honour January 24, 2018 / 8:02 pm

      Finding the sense of calm within yourself to strive to be the best you can be, without any kind of external comparison, is probably zen. Blissful, and incredibly difficult to reach. Stay where you are!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. vinneve January 22, 2018 / 5:25 am

    Very well said. I do agree with you and you are a good mom 🙂

    Like

    • Dina Honour January 24, 2018 / 8:01 pm

      :-). Thank you. Sometimes I am a good mom. Other days I’m just getting through. So really, just like everyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. aviets January 22, 2018 / 5:52 pm

    Those are some wise mom words. I clearly recall my secret relief when our son received a score of “3” at his first solo classical voice competition (the lowest score possible at the time). He, who excels at everything, who is dangerously overconfident at all times. He truly needed a “failure” experience, and he handled that one beautifully. He vowed to truly prepare the next time, rather than coasting, and he did. Solid “1” scores for the rest of his high school singing career. You’re right – we all need to know what it’s like to come in last.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dina Honour January 24, 2018 / 8:00 pm

      There’s a fine line between confident and dangerously overconfident isn’t there? And I think we tend to shove them over the line toward dangerously overconfident more than we would the other way. Nothing like a little bit of failure to propel you on to do better. All important!

      Liked by 1 person

      • aviets January 24, 2018 / 8:53 pm

        Absolutely. Can’t tell you how thrilled I was when my son said to me a few months ago, “You know, I know I’m way too confident and it’s going to come back to bite me in the ass one of these days.” At least he’s self-aware.

        Liked by 1 person

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