So it seems I have caused a bit of a stirring with my controversial views and I wanted to set some things straight…
It’s probably easiest to start this post with a list of what I think it is most important that my children learn:
A new years resolution that did wonders
So a few years ago my friend Tessa (who seems to be coming up a lot in my posts, probably because she is one of my most thought provoking friends) introduced me to the idea of living without competition. To the possibility of raising our children without teaching them to think in a competitive way. Intriguing…
Naturally I got defensive to begin with and said in response:
“Well I don’t think there is any harm in gentle competition”
But as soon as I uttered the words, I began to doubt that they were true. What I love about Tessa is that she never pushes these things. She plants the seed and leaves it with you. Being a naturally obsessive person I spent a few sleepless nights mulling this concept over. When I thought about it that much, I could not find a single example where being competitive did me any favours. In fact, it brought out my ugliest traits.
I suppose my first introduction to the antagonistic drive of needing to win was introduced through good old sibling rivalry. My brother Jim and I were always compared and spent many of our childhood years, fighting for the spotlight when it came to school and home. I remember the intense emotions so clearly. A mixture of pure awe at a person and unshakable jealousy. I don’t think this is a healthy way for anyone to begin their life. Yet so many siblings start off the same way.
This feeling whatever it was; this melancholy fervor that made me need to be better than others, remained with me. It never made a ‘fun’ evening of board games end well. I was often compared to Monica from friends. Sticking it to the loser if I did well and raging if I didn’t. Embarassing.
There are two sides to being competitive: One where you behave obnoxiously and are desperate to beat everyone (and have that be noticed) to feel good about yourself. The other where you know you have no chance of winning so you give up before you’ve even started. I have definitely experienced both, most of my life so far. And neither bring out the best in me.
I honestly think this is why so many kids loathe sport at school. Rather than teaching children the art of the pastime fairly and indeed the true, noble path to competing, schools generally search for kids with ‘potential’. Because they want their cabinets filled with trophies. All the average children are ignored and below average in my experience tend to irritate the teachers.
I was never picked for any team, ever. So I hated P.E. It made me feel bad about myself. So naturally I rebelled. Imagine a scenario though where teams were not the important part of school sports though? Where children are all being taught fairly and filled with the spirit of friendly competition. Where they are given the opportunity to take part and develop a passion for a sport even though they aren’t the best. Imagine all children being at ease with losing sometimes. And more importantly being used to that without it being and kind of tragedy or personal failure. Surely that’s a valuable lesson for us all to learn? And where better than the sports field?
I’m not going to bang on about educational settings here but i do want to give one more example where they often (I think) encourage children to perceive each other as rivals rather than peers:
Placing children in ‘sets’ for classes.
In my opinion, most children don’t actually know what they are ‘good’ at. They are told. By their parents and by their teachers. Placing a child in a ‘bottom’ set for anything is code for saying “You are shit at this”. I remember the feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing that came with being placed in one of those lower settings well. Most teenagers are familiar with these emotions. I think this is one of the factors. Again, for me, it made me give up without even trying- my philosophy being “why bother if I’m crap? I’ll just mess around until I enter a class that I’m good at.”
I also realise that my reasons for misbehaving in these classes was down to feeling incompetent. Making people laugh made me feel better about myself. So rather than sitting there sadly hating myself for being ‘stupid’ (which is what I thought I was thanks to the set placings), I was ‘naughty’. The looks of hatred and yells of impatience from the teacher confirmed these two things- 1) I was indeed a bad kid 2) And a stupid one. A vicious cycle that did me no favours in those classes, or for my well being as I developed as a person. If people view you as ‘bad’ you start to see yourself that way. Same with intelligence. So I think this idea helps create the kids with low self-esteem and attitude problems and often, it doesn’t change for them.
This was the environment that first made me resent learning. And all kids are born with the desire to learn, are they not?
In the higher sets I liked the work. But this is where the atmosphere was most competitive. We were all secretly thinking, “We are all great at this cause we are in here, but who is the best?”
Who could get the best grades?
Who could answer questions first?
Who could answer questions the best?
The amount of straight A friends I have that suffer with huge anxiety is very interesting. They can’t sleep during exam time. They shake, cry, sweat with panic and work, work, work. And if they don’t get that A, they hate themselves. Completely. They are ashamed! What kind of world are we living in?! Shouldn’t learning go back to being that drive and passion we were all born with? Not a constant strive to do better than last time? Or better than everyone else? It’s not healthy.
So after tossing and turning for nights on end. I decided that being competitive for me (and probably most) is a horrible trait engrained by nurture, not nature. Therefore, I could eliminate it from my personality. I could retrain my brain to no longer think that way.
You know what? It worked.
Obviously the people around me have a lifetime’s worth of evidence to contradict me here, but with any change, it takes time. It’s been three years. In another ten, people will no longer see me as a maniac that needs to win. I am confident of that.
The way I did it was by focusing on the feeling after winning when ever I started to feel the gut stab and horrendous desire to ‘outdo’ others. I concentrated on the fact that no-one actually cares. The axiom that I can’t scroll back in my mind and work out who won which game and when? Because ultimately it doesn’t matter, it has never mattered. I realised the people I am drawn to are not people that need to beat others at things but people who want to learn throughout their lives regardless of what others think of them. That is the kind of person I long to be. Someone who is at ease with my intelligence and feeds my intellect at my own pace and relishes it. I strive to grow into someone who admires others without envy. Someone who can laugh at myself if I do a bad job at something. I want my children to possess this qualities too. And I am a main influence to them!
Since this revelation, I am actually growing more secure in my own abilities. I now embrace this strange, relaxed freedom that comes with not needing to be the best, or funniest, or skinniest, or smartest etc etc. I am definitely less judgemental of others which makes me more compelled by people. I genuinely want everyone to succeed! It feels so warm and wonderful. I even have a better body image and expectation for myself and others. All in all, I am a happier, healthier person without competition.
Also (I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant) my eldest daughter, she is glowing from these changes already. Susannah is three, so she came just at the right time. If she loses at a game she still enjoys it and wants to play again! I hope I can keep this going for her. I feel so proud when she sings “wah wah wah wah’ with a big smile on her face as she slides her playing counter down a snake rather than up a ladder.
Another thought that occured to me is that most things are subjective anyway. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and all that. If we apply this logic to most situations, no-one is bad or great at anything. We are all different and interesting. So next time a friend shows us a painting that we think is terrible, maybe we should try and see it for what it is, a little piece of them, instead of trying to rate whether it is any good. If it makes the person doing it happy then who bloody cares?
Anyway, there is a reason that people often die before anyone appreciates their work. Because people are stuck in their ways. So I reckon, what ever we enjoy we should do it with bells on even if the people around us, the critics, our parents or teachers tell us we are terrible at it. They can all go jump. Because we are all entitled to revel in things regardless of other people’s standards.
If we could all learn to love what we do and cherish doing it, and feel the same to the people around us, maybe we would all be more confident, laugh more and take bigger leaps. Because honestly, who are we to judge anyway? We might not be right about everything…