Joel Schwartzberg’s kids don’t care about medals or awards, and he’s beginning to realize that might not be a bad thing.
When my son and twin daughters each received either first place or runner-up awards for their elementary school read-a-thons, I was ecstatic. Now, no kid gets his knee skinned, his nose bloodied, or even breaks a sweat in fierce, kid-on-kid read-a-thon combat, but these awards were my kids’ first wins for concerted effort in competition.
When I first heard the news, I pressed them for details. And pressed… And pressed…
“How did it make you feel?” I asked.
“Fine,” they said.
“I mean, did they call your names out?”
“Did you have to stand up? Was there applause?”
“I think so.”
“Does it make you feel good to know you did so well?” I knew it was a leading question, but at this point I was desperate.
“I guess so.”
I was stunned. It’s not that I needed them to win, but once they did, I wanted them to take some pride in it. I’m not taking parenting tips from George Patton, but the real world is a very competitive place—loaded with Simon Cowells; I want my children to be prepared for competition, starting with pride in their successes. Or is that just the Dr. Pepper 10 in me talking?
The kids’ mother, a psychologist, had cautioned me against saying “I’m proud of you” when they succeeded. Her fear was that it would plant the idea that our love and approval was conditional on their accomplishments. She preferred scripts like, “Wow, you worked so hard on that…” followed up with, I guess, a strong nod to fill the awkward void.
I didn’t buy it. My reaction to her suggestion was similar to the one I had to our pediatrician’s suggestion we switch to cloth diapers for a few weeks to test the cause of a rash:
Not. Going. To. Happen.
I personally grew up in a world where parental pride and personal accomplishments were explicitly connected, and I emerged mentally healthy by all accounts. (Don’t read too much into the fact that, when this essay was published, the first thing I did was call my Mom.)
Even if kids are trained not to link approval to accomplishment, it’s important for kids to like winning. And to like winning, it helps to hate losing. And so the cycle of winning and losing, and the sad and thrilling lessons therein, are born. Sometimes, nothing makes you feel good about yourself as having beaten someone else.
To be fair, my kids do show plenty of competitive spirit when they’re pitted against each other in the privacy and safety of our home—we can’t seem to play a round of UNO without someone throwing a teary fit. And forget about SORRY—a game premised entirely on the thrill on vindictive retribution. So I know there’s hope for them.
But maybe their competitive divestment is a good thing. I’d like to see my kids spared some of the debilitating anxiety and crushing defeats that marked my youth. And I was only in the debate club.
Following my interrogation, I blurted to the kids, “I’m crazy proud of you guys.”
They just shrugged their shoulders.
It was the reaction I expected. But it’ll hold me until next year’s Book-o-lympics at least.