My three year old daughter Micah got pick-up-sticks for Christmas this past year. She wasn't overly thrilled-- to her, it was just some sticks in a box, and they did not seem exciting when surrounded by mountains of unopened gifts. Over the last few weeks, however, this has become her game of choice-- and while we started playing the traditional way- if a stick moves, you loose your turn-- she began to initiate games by saying "let's play pick-up-sticks-- but no winning or losing, Mommy". At first, I humored her without a second thought. If a stick moved slightly (she is only 3), we'd laugh and say "it moved!" and let her try again. I tried to maintain professionalism in the game and would only take a stick if nothing moved, but it turns out that my "losing" broke the "no winning or losing" rule, so I gave in to "a slight move is okay and a major move is just a sign to try again" rule changes as well.
And soon I realized that I was falling into that often debated realm of "trophies for participation". No winning or losing. You get the points for playing the game. The best are equal to the worst. And I wasn't sure I liked it. My competitive nature sprang up and my "kids have to learn to work hard to achieve and not everyone is equal in their intelligence and skillsl" beliefs started to rear their heads, and I began to question if acquiescing to "no winning or losing" in pick-up-sticks was heading my 3 year old down a path of complacency and lowered expectations.
But then the mommy side of my mentality jumped into the argument. That phrase, often stated loudly in exasperation when a quarrel starts in my home, "does everything ALWAYS have to be a competition between you two/ three/ four?" started to scream itself inside my head. DOES everything always have to be a competition? Is it really hurting my young daughter if I agree to just playing for playing's sake?
I get why she doesn't want to compete at this game. For one, as the youngest of four, she is used to comparing herself to her older siblings. And she's got a lot of pride. There's nothing that upsets her more than losing-- even if losing is in a race against her 11 year old sister who possesses legs four times the length of her own. Her favorite games are those she is best at-- hide and seek, in which she is capable of climbing into a tiny hole and remaining completely silent, ignoring even our calls of "game over- come out now!" until her father and I find ourselves running frantically around the house, screaming plaintively for a response, with 9-1-1 set to dial with the push of a button. She wins that game. She also wins the "jump off the arm of the couch and land on a pillow thrown four feet away without hurting yourself" game and other in-house parkour challenges (lack of fear being a huge factor in this). And the "climb into mommy and daddy's bed at 4:30 am and still get a snuggle" game? My husband is the loser in that one. Pick-up-sticks? Not so much. The memory game? Kolbie, her 6 year old sister, has that in the bag, although public challenges to her memory scare her to death. Soccer? Holds her own until 10 year old Mason forgets he's playing a three year old and kicks the ball hard into the goal, which happens to coincide with where her face is at the moment. Egg nog at 9:30 at night? Nope. Doesn't win that one either, despite an hour of screaming in protest. So when it comes to pick-up-sticks, well, it makes sense to her to take out the age-discriminatory skill set of immobility and make it a literal "let's pick up the sticks, in a row, then make a color pattern with them-- no winning or losing" game. She wins.
And is this so wrong? Does there always have to be a loser or a winner? One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to acknowledge to yourself that your children are not champions at everything. We want our kids to be the best and always win-- thus, this push for "trophies for all" and Gifted/ Talented and Above Grade Level courses-- when statistically, if an average of 70% of students are falling into the "Advanced" categories (as is true in our school system), your child is just average, despite exciting labels that make you feel otherwise. It's a game of perception-- and we would rather perceive our children as gifted, spectacular, more special than other children, instead of look at the reality: most of our kids are "just" normal.
But acknowledging this in our own minds is very different from stating this to your child. Very few good parents are going to feel comfortable looking their child in the eye after a sweaty, heart-wrenching, full-effort-given soccer loss and say "well, you know-- you're just not that good at soccer. Maybe you should try basketball or, if that doesn't work out any better, maybe you should stick to legos?" No! We hug our kids and say "You were awesome-- you did great! You are so good out there! I guess that other team just played better this time, but you'll get them next time!" And when a kid struggles in a subject, we don't say "maybe school just isn't your thing. You might not be smart, but hey, but you've got a great personality!". And we never voice what in our minds we may be thinking: "It's a good thing you're so pretty. Models don't have to be smart as long as they have a good agent." Stating these things-- in one's own mind or, heaven forbid, out loud to a partner or friend-- immediately transports you into a category of bad parent-- not quite as bad as the ones who forget their kids at the grocery store, but close. Definitely someone to keep an eye on in case this turns into a dire therapist-needed scenario. But it's impossible for all of us to have spectacular children. Some of our kids have to be average, and some have to be below average. And we all know this, we just have a tendency to end this statement with "but not mine!"
Even that borderline attempt at acknowledging a lack of success--"well, all that matters is that you did your best"-- isn't doing our kids any favors. 'Cause get what? Doing your best doesn't get you anywhere if you are losing soccer games, failing math class, or not getting the job that is going to allow you to pay your own mortgage and move out of your parents' house. "You did your best" is just a shortened, kinder version of "Your best is not good enough. ie. You are not good at this." And nice parents don't say this to their kids- or do they? Perhaps honesty is the best approach. We play win/lose, and if you lose, oh well. I win.
People will jump in with opinions: steer them towards something they CAN excel in; provide them with the resources they need to achieve their goals; all that matters is that you love and support them in whatever they do.... but......the answer to all of these is "that's not always possible". So what are we to do as parents? I honestly don't know. If there is anything I consistently am as a parent, it is inconsistent. Each day, each child, each program or sport or class or challenge gets a different response. It's all trial and error with me. And when someone asks "is that working for you?" my response will probably be "check back in 25 years, and I'll let you know if it did". But as we all know, 25 years from now may be too late. Especially if our under-performing, lazy, incapable children are still sleeping in the bedroom next to us.
So for now, I'll tell my son to study harder, my oldest daughter to keep smiling, my middle girl to not be afraid to fail at something, and my youngest child "okay, pick-up-sticks. No winning or losing." And if I ever find myself in a situation in which my children are not spectacular, gifted and talented, the cream of the crop-- then I'll vaguely avoid the truth by saying "you don't have to be good at everything, and someday you'll find something at which you will shine"-- but until that day comes, I'll just relish the fact that my children are exceptional.