My daughter asked me this question the other day. She looked at me and said “mama, is it important to you that I win a competition?” and then after a pause she added “I really want to win the Spelling competition in my school this year”.
I’ve always told my kids to try their best and leave the rest to God. Not sure if that’s right or wrong – but parenting is as much about our desire to inculcate the right values in our kids than telling them what we think, because the two are often not the same thing.
Yes, I do believe that winning is important, but will I say it in as many words to my kids? Probably not. I will sugar quote it and ask them to try their best and not worry about the outcome. But do I seriously believe in that myself? Will I be unaffected if my daughter tries her level best, comes within spitting distance of the top spot, and then loses it? The answer is that while I will not be shattered, I will be disappointed. And that disappointment, let me add, may not necessarily be with her, but with the outcome. By the time you reach this age, you realize that winning is a combination of many, many factors, not all of which are in your control. You’ve seen enough life to know that those who win have worked hard, no doubt, but they have also always thanked God and their good fortune (the best of athletes are superstitious about many things before their game) So yes, if she tries hard and loses, I will be extremely supportive of her and encourage her to go on, but I will, in my heart, be a little disappointed. And at that moment, my focus will be as much on comforting her as it will be on masking my own regret (for lack of a better word). The worst thing that a child wants to feel is that she has let her parents down. I think that if a child goes into a competition knowing that her parents will take it on the chin if she lost and commend her for her effort, she will be able to face it better.
But this is not what her question was about. It was a very direct question that required a direct answer. Is winning important? And while I know that some questions cannot be answered in a simple yes and no, but still if I was to answer this one in either one of the two choices, I’d say yes, winning is important.
Now let me defend my answer (even though I did not give her a one word one)
The fact of the matter is that it is a competitive world out there. Children have to learn to take the stress of living in such a world (am not getting into ideological arguments about how we can go about changing such an environment and achieve some utopian world – that’s for another day). Wanting to win is not a negative emotion like we make it out to be at times in our kid-gloves parenting approach. Wining makes people feel good about themselves, so what’s wrong in wanting to achieve it? If winning wasn’t important then World Cup and Wimbledon finals would not matter. But they do, because the people who are playing it, want to win. In the run up to the FIFA World Cup, readers were inundated with stories about how Brazil wants to regain its glory on the home turf and win to atone for the humiliating defeat to Uruguay in the final in 1950. The entire country seems to still not have got over the “loss”.
So, my point is, why mislead the child just to sound politically correct, or for some misplaced notion of cushioning the blow. I say misplaced because what will cushion the blow (assuming there is one) is not the fact that you’ve led them to believe that winning is not important, but your own reaction in the face of such a situation. You, as a parent, must handle the failure well. The two are not the same thing. You can believe in winning, but that does not mean that you cant take failure. Conversely, you could think that you are prepared to take your child’s failure and tell her that winning is not everything, but then not be able to stomach a defeat.
I think what matters more is how you handle the defeat than what you believe about winning.
In my humble opinion, if you tell your kids that winning is important, it makes them work harder. A win encourages a child in a positive way, there’s something about tasting success, no matter how small, that gives them a high. Hopefully that will make them want to keep it up. Yes, there are pressures of staying on top, but as you go through life you have to learn to deal with pressures. No one can duck them, no one. And if you shield your kids from the real world, then the chances that they’ll end up disillusioned are much higher. In fact, I often tell my kids that people use the wrong means to win and while they should never do that, they must learn to stand up to those who do.
I don’t wish to over-prepare my kids for the world (and who knows, maybe I am) but my simple point is that I grew up thinking that everyone was good and followed the law, only to see otherwise. It didn’t make me cynical (I hope) but it did disturb me.
I want my children to excel at what they do. I think every parent does. So, if my daughter wants to win the Spelling Bee, she’ll have to work harder than she has for anything in her life – and while she agrees with that in theory, she does not necessarily translate than into action.
One lesson that she needs to learn is that there is a deep abyss between the desire to win and the actual win. If she wants that Spell Bee trophy, she will need to cross that chasm.