Winning and losing gracefully

November 05,2008
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.

This morning when I walked L. into his classroom, the atmosphere was almost electric. The kids were grouped around computers, the screens filled up with the red and blue images of the electoral maps--the same images that are now burned into my brain, after hours of staring at them myself last night (I stayed up until 1:00! I haven't stayed up until 1:00 a.m.--without a child being involved--in years). The teacher had given them sheets to fill out, and when the kids clicked on the different states they were able to see, in very visual ways, who had carried that state and how many electoral votes they had won. "We have a new president!" some kids chanted. Others said Barack Obama's name, over and over again, trying it out for effect. Into all this excitement one child walked in, shoulders slumped a bit, in the characteristic pose of defeat.

"MY candidate lost," he told the kids, who surged towards him, their faces filled with excitement about the election news. One kid stuck his finger out, in the classic gesture of nyah-nyah you lost mockery, at the one kid who didn't seem to be celebrating, but the teacher jumped on him immediately, gave him a quick lesson on manners and grace, and he put his finger away, embarrassed.

A wise person once said that how you accept victory is as important as how you accept defeat--more important, I would argue, because people are much more forgiving of the way people act when they are on the other side of victory. If you lose, you are expected to feel sad and disappointed and angry, even. When you win, more eyes are upon you because you are carrying the torch, paving the way for other victories in the future. My kids aren't involved in any type of competitive sport at the moment. I'm certainly no soccer mom, thankfully, although T.'s interest in it may some day make me one. I've watched other parents negotiate the strong competitive spirit their own kids have, and have felt relieved, actually, that I don't have to deal with that--yet. 

I know that I will cross paths with many people who are on the other side of claiming victory today. This weekend we'll visit with some friends who have their feet planted firmly across the aisle from us, and we'll have to think carefully about what we say or don't say that day. I know there are still many parents at L.'s school who will be none too happy with the basking-in-the-afterglow political discussions in the walk-up line today. So I'm thinking carefully about important conversations we can have with the kids about winning gracefully, and I'm hoping that we can all find grace and manners and unity on this historic new day, no matter where we stand.