There is so much talk about preparing for competition that, sometimes, I think we are being too laid-back with our nine-year-old son, who participates in a lot of things but rarely wins. He’s quite okay with this, but should we be pushing him a little more to compete? What is your opinion?
“Competing, excelling, winning”—these words are constantly all around us and our children. In this context, the closing minute of a TV child genius contest presented a very revealing moment. Before the final round, the quizmaster quoted Kipling, who describes both victory and loss as “impostors”. A gentle reminder that, indeed, whatever the stakes, it is playing a good game rather than winning and losing that is of importance. These are not just words, they are a principle to live by if we are not to turn our children into constantly anxious, unhappy people with low self-esteem.
Once it became clear who the winner, the first runner-up and the second runner-up were, it also became clear how each child and parent handled their victory or loss. The boy who was declared India’s Child Genius had a quiet smile on his face. His parents came up to him, hugged him and shook his hands. Neither he nor his parents were overly jubilant or excited; they wore their victory well. None of that punching of the air with balled fists and the snarling “yes, yes” of the victor. It looked as if they would not have been totally crestfallen or destroyed if the result had been different.
The boy who came third in the neck-to-neck competition, too, smiled cheerfully and accepted his trophy gracefully; his parents looked happy, too. It was the boy who came second—the first runner-up—who seemed unable to handle the situation at all. Looking crushed, he couldn’t muster the courage or poise to look up or to congratulate the winner. More sadly, he seemed unable, even for a moment, to feel any kind of satisfaction at having made it so far in the race. His parents, too, rushed on to the stage with grim, unsmiling faces, and had to literally prop his chin up and force him to hold up the trophy.
Great expectations: It’s about playing a good game, not about the trophy
For those moments, he did not seem like a child at all, but a grieving adult—and this, in spite of having a trophy in his hand. How ironic. Here was a child who had proved himself, round after round, and yet, all he could now see was the loss, looming large over everything else.
We need to learn and teach our children how to, at all times, keep a perspective on winning and losing. Of course, victory is sweet. But loss comes with so many more wonderful lessons: the knowledge that you gave it your best shot, an awareness of the areas in which you can prepare better next time and, finally, the grace to accept that someone else has simply done a better job than you, at that moment. Neither victory nor defeat is a reflection of your core abilities, your innate talent, or your self-worth. This is not just something we just say as words of consolation to the loser. It is a truth that will serve us and our children throughout life. Along with feeding their knowledge base, we simply have to strengthen their emotional core. Or else, we risk bringing up a generation of anxiety-ridden people with shaky self-esteem that can be snatched from them with just the ring of a buzzer.
I have an odd complaint: My son, who is preparing for his competitive exams, is too helpful. As he is very bright, his classmates and friends are forever seeking his help for their math and science problems. We keep telling him that he should concentrate on his own studies, and tell everyone to ask the teachers for help. He just laughs it off. How do we convince him?
Please do take a long view of this. From what you describe, your son sounds like a fine young man. If his own marks or grades are good, his helping others is an excellent thing, and not a waste of time. Moreover, while explaining problems to others, he is revising and clarifying matters for himself as well. “Kindness and helpfulness” may not be taught or examined in school and college, but it appears that your son deserves full marks in this life skill.
In the pre-exam hysteria about topping, maxing, competing, etc., we send out truly awful messages to our children. “Put yourself first and foremost” and don’t “waste time” on other people seem to be the mantra here. So, kids appearing for the boards or competitive exams are supposed to eat, study, sleep, be entertained a bit, and that’s it. We expect absolutely no social, kind, easy, giving behaviour from them. Because you’re sitting for your boards, you can be a little “self-serving entity” and let everyone else go to hell—that is our message, loud and clear.
Ironically, a few years down the line, we will be encouraging our kids as young adults to join workshops, camps and what-have-you that teach team-building and cooperation. We will also get them to “volunteer” and teach street kids and such like, because it looks good on their resume when they apply to that Ivy League college. Later, we will talk glibly and blithely about living in abundance.
But it’s time we were less self-seeking when it comes to our children’s “progress”. Perhaps, it is time we learnt a few life-lessons from the abundant kindness and ease displayed by youngsters such as your son. Particularly as you say his grades are good—obviously, then, he is not being foolhardy or being taken for a ride by others or any such paranoid interpretation—sorry to use that word.
Your question prompts me to reiterate the belief that we must have our children’s overall development in mind at all times. You can’t fit together his psyche in bits and pieces like a jigsaw or some kind of modular structure—as if the kindness and consideration component can be an add-on, later, after he has done with looking out for himself and himself alone!
While we encourage our children to work hard and focus and do well in school, there may be (and should be) ample room for them to take other people along too—giving of themselves, sharing with friends who need a bit of help with studies, and in this way learning way more about life than what any academic exam can possibly teach.
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