All of us have noted a trend, one that is especially prevalent in public schools, to insulate kids from losing. I know that my kids’ public school, as part of its master plan, has instituted a policy by which the kids don’t do any competitive sports on campus in order to protect them from dealing with loss.
I think this is an appalling idea. As I frequently tell my children, they’ll lose way more often in life than they’ll win. In order to succeed in life, they have to have a hunger for winning, coupled with the ability to deal with losing. I tell them that when you lose, you’re sad, you try to figure out how you can do better next time, you suck it up, and then you get on with it.
I actually have a very personal reason for feeling this way. My parents were very rigorous, demanding parents. I did not grow up in a loosey-goosey home except for one thing: If I lost or didn’t do well at something, my mother was so sympathetic that, if I wanted, I was allowed to walk away. I can’t tell you the number of things, academic, musical and athletic that I abandoned along the way.
I understand and appreciate my Mom’s motives. She’d had a really terrible life (the usual “terrible” stuff of divorce and dislocation, compounded by several years interned by the Japanese in Indonesia during WWII).* She so wanted me to have the happiness and security that she had missed. Part of that was wonderfully done, by giving me love and structure and fairly high expectations. And part of it was too soft, and didn’t teach me to deal with adversity.
The end result is that my default mode is to be a whiny quitter. It’s only by high effort from my adult brain that I’m not a whiny, quitting adult. I do stick with things, but it’s not easy.
I long ago figured out that I needed to do things differently for my kids. I found my role model about eight years ago when we were visiting some relatives with three very athletic children. The kids were running around madly, when suddenly the youngest squealed, and ran up to his Dad crying, with a bloody nose and fat lip. His Dad enveloped him in a hug, said some truly sympathetic words, cleaned him up and threw him back in the game. There was no lingering over his physical injuries or wallowing in his psychic wrongs. The boy is now both a basketball and a baseball star, as well as a very sweet person.
I was thinking of all of this today because, over the last couple of weeks, my daughter has had run-ins with a little girl, as well as with the girls’ mother. I don’t think I’m being unduly partisan when I say that, while I can be as critical of my child as the next person, my child has the right of things here.
You see, both girls are competing in the same sport, at the same age level. My daughter adores the activity and has gone from abysmally horrible to pretty darn good. The other child went from okay to okay. She hasn’t seen the improvement my daughter has, probably because she doesn’t love the sport as my daughter does.
When my daughter was at rock bottom in the weekly competitions, and everyone else she knew was doing well, she was sad about her own failures, but applauded her friends’ successes (and I know this is true, because I saw her in action). As my daughter has improved, over-taking this other girl, the other girl has not been a good loser. Every time she does less well than my daughter, she has a tearful tantrum.
If that were all, it would be just between the girls, and that would be the end of it. Last week, though, when my daughter ran up, flush with her first success, the mother turned on my daughter for daring to be happy in front of her own psychically wounded little girl. She then proceeded to spend the next hour lavishing her daughter with attention in an effort to cheer her up. As for me, I was stuck trying to explain to my daughter why someone yelled at her for being happy.
I’m perfectly willing to agree that my daughter, glorying in her first win after weeks of big losses, probably was completely insensitive to the other girl’s anguish. Part of that insensitivity, though, was that my daughter has learned, as I’ve taught her, to suck it up. Acknowledge your loss, feel bad about it for a minute, and then move forward. She was totally incapable of comprehending a family dynamic that rewards sore losing with enormous attention — and gifts.
These people are good friends, and I’m not going to damage a solid friendship over this one — which is why I’m venting here and not talking to my friend. It’s also good for my daughter to learn that not everyone is as tough as she is and to develop the compassion to deal with them, even if she believes there response to be excessive or bizarre.
Mostly, though, I feel sorry for the other girl. As I know to my own cost (and my mother was not as solicitious as this mother), it’s terrible to go through life not knowing how to lose or deal with adversity. Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen that you can’t walk away from, and you’ll be stuck trying to deal with it without having developed any coping mechanisms at all.
*My Mom’s experiences at camp are one of the things that keep me from being quite as whiny as I could be. For example, with today’s heat wave, when I was at the sports event today and temperatures were hitting 100, it was tempting to whine about how unbearable it was. Then I remembered that, in camp, when the guards were feeling particularly malevolent, they’d impose a collective punishment on a camp filled with women (young and old) and children: Everybody would have to stand in formation, in the tropical sun, for 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, large numbers of them died where they stood. I can therefore take a few hours under an awning with a cool drink in my hand. If I whine, I keep the tone light.
UPDATED: I am very, very happy to report that my friend herself figured out that her daughter needs to toughen up. It turned out that, after today’s breakdown, she gave her daughter a good talking to about learning how to lose. I’m so pleased. These are good friends, and people I really value, and it was very hard dealing with situation involving our girls that had us using such diametrically different approaches to a common scenario.
Still, while this problem is resolved (Hurrah!), parents here continue to have a really sad inability to let their children deal with the fact that life is not fair. On that same point, if you haven’t yet read Joseph Epstein’s The Kindergarchy, you really should.