Winners

June 26,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

There was a big swim meet at our pool the other night. Not  long ago, I was talking with the mother of one little boy, who was going to participate in the six and under group. He's four.

"We really think he can win!" The mom told me, excitement in her eyes.

"I AM going to WIN!" The little boy confirmed, complete with little fist pumping the air, clearly thrilled by this idea. I wondered if he really knew what this meant--to win--or if he was only echoing his mother's words, mirroring her excitement. I tried to put myself in the mother's shoes. Would I want my four-year-old to win? Would I just be happy that he participated in the first place, and feel only pride at his achievement, not caring about the outcome? Or would I find that I really and truly wanted him to win, to realize vicariously through my child some unattained dream I might have had to win a swim team medal?

When we were in D.C. recently, we had the chance to attend a block party in my father-in-law's neighborhood--the first, really, we had ever been to. After the throngs of neighbors had descended on the potluck tent and pretty much decimated the supplies of pasta salads, bean salads, cheese platters, breads, and desserts galore, the DJ sparked up some music for the kids. The first hour or so was to be devoted to children's music, and to competitions and games for the kids.

I pulled up a chair and watched while little T. inserted herself into a group of taller (not all older) kids. The DJ was, at that moment, blowing up huge inflatable musical instruments, to be given out as prizes later. I could tell by T.'s body language that she really, really wanted one of those inflatable instruments--the gigantic saxophone, perhaps. She craned her neck and stood on her tippy-toes, watching that DJ's every move. The first game was a hula-hoop contest, something T. really stood no chance of winning. But she tried, gamely, and lost out to every single other kid there. The ultimate winner was a bigger girl who lived right on that street and who had, as the mother declared proudly, been practicing all year to win. All throughout the contest the parents were front and center, egging their kids on, clapping and cheering, and shouting encouragements as if an Olympic medal were at stake. And I won't pretend I wasn't right there with them, clapping and cheering, too.

I have mixed feelings, though, about instilling the spirit of competition into small children too early. I think many children come by competitiveness naturally anyway, and that this will develop on its own over time through sports or school, even. But taking a very small child and encouraging him/her to be competitive, to want to win, just doesn't seem right to me. I think games are great entertainment for small children, but I always think they should be designed with the idea in mind that all the kids should be winners in the end--or at least feel like they are, and that what counts really is the trying--the being game enough to step forward and give it an honest go. Participation in any competition is, in and of itself, a huge undertaking for most small children. It takes a lot of courage for a child to step forward, put herself on the line, and play along with others.

T.'s little heart was broken when she didn't win the giant saxophone. I had to carry her off in tears into my father-in-law's house. She didn't understand why the inflatable saxophone was given to the bigger girl, and not to her. The concept of victory, of being better, was lost on her at that moment. She had participated and played along, but, as far as she was concerned, it had amounted to nothing. Of course, I would have been happy if she had won in the end--what parent wouldn't have been, really. But did I want to teach her that winning was the outcome that mattered the most?

"Didn't you have fun?" I asked T., when I pulled on her pajamas after her bath.

"I didn't win a prize," she wailed again, tears springing afresh into her eyes at the memory.

"Winning isn't everything," I told her, rather lamely (don't you just feel so hollow telling your kids this?), because that night, in her own little world, winning HAD been everything, and that's what made it all so hard.