May the Best Man Win

And so we begin again- the 2013 fifth-grade ballroom dance team has been chosen.  After hours, days, weeks of after-school practices and lunchtime tryouts, fifty boys and girls sat in a crowded classroom on Friday afternoon to await the announcement- which twelve had been chosen to compete in New York City’s Colors of the Rainbow competition.  The entire fifth grade, over seventy children, had been trained in ballroom dances and was preparing to perform a showcase for the school and the parents.  It is one of the activities that makes our building stand out from the other three elementary schools in our district.  But beyond the training, we choose to participate in the optional competition part, and every year more kids try out for the team.  The fifth grade teacher who leads the practices is an amateur prize-winning competitor herself, who hopes to open up the world of competitive dancing to a new generation.  I am the sorry assistant coach who watches the team far surpass her lame dance moves after the first week. 

On Friday, we spent the first fifteen minutes of the meeting reiterating the facts: ”There are fifty of you; we only need twelve.  We had to choose not only the kids who showed the best current moves, but also who showed the most potential; who listened to criticism without falling apart and fixed the problems quickly; who would not bow under the tremendous pressure of dancing against ten other teams of fifth graders in front of an audience of hundreds of parents; who could take being judged and deal with the consequences; who could commit to daily after-school and weekend practices, often giving up other well-loved Spring sports.  If you were not chosen, it does not mean  you stink at dancing.  If you do not get onto the team, do not let this stop you from pursuing your love of dancing.  If you do not make the team, do not be mean to those who do- we need your spirit and your support as we go out there and face the other schools.  If you do make the team, do not think you are better than anyone else and do not act as if you are…”

After all of this, the principal calls the names.  As the first several names are called, the rest of the group cheers loudly for them.  But as the list progresses and it starts to sink in that the odds are growing smaller for the remaining kids, the cheers turn to a quieter clapping.  When the last name is called, only those kids with huge hearts are still applauding.  Then there is silence.  Then the tears begin.  Everyone is crying- those who made the team cry with joy; those who didn’t cry bitter tears; some who made the team cry for those who didn’t.  Oy, ten-year-olds.

And then the fallout begins: parents of children who didn’t make the team say their children were “utterly shattered.”  There should be follow-up meetings to soothe the children who didn’t make the team.  The competition has no place in the school at all; that it ruins a wonderful program for all of the children; that the children are too young to deal with such a blow to their psyches.  That this part of the program should be discontinued.

And all of this brings me to the topic for today’s blog posting: competition with children.  Is it a good thing or a destructive thing? Is it a natural part of growing up, or a part to be delayed and even done away with?  Is it necessary and if so, is it to be considered a necessary evil?

In order to answer this question, I have to defer to the experts: children.  Having been a kid-watcher for thirty years, I have learned many amazing things about people and the development of social groups.  Here is what I see: pecking order is a natural thing- every year in every group, there are leaders and followers. As much as I try to give each child an opportunity to take on both of these roles, it is an artifice, temporary, a trying on of a costume for fun.  I have come to see that even the smallest of children recognize the difference between the chooser and the choosee, the decider and the ones who deal with the decisions.  And here is something else I see: among the leaders with the strong personalities there is competition.  They thrive on it, live for it, die by it:  me first, me best, me now.   As much as I try to dull the sharp edge of “losing”, its sting cannot be mitigated.  When I say losing, this can be anything from not getting the toy you want to not being chosen to hold the door as the class walks to P.E. to not getting called on to share a thought or to answer the teacher’s question to not getting elected for Student Government.  The disappointment, anger, disbelief of not getting what you want causes the strong personalities to plan retaliation or to try even harder.  It causes the quieter ones to feel sad, left out, unimportant, unloved. 

And so the question remains- at what point in a child’s life should she first face competition?  When should he discover that life is not always fair?  Everyone gets a trophy for showing up.  Everyone’s mom or dad will fight for their kid to “make it”.  Everyone is wonderful at what they do and should be given praise to help develop self esteem and confidence.

Well here is a newsflash: not every kid is good at everything.  Yes, they can improve their ability with hard work, but I wonder if they will be willing to work hard for what they want if they have a false and empty type of self esteem based on mommy and daddy’s love and support.  How about we teach the children to deal with adversity, with failure, with “NO”?  How about we stop coddling the kids emotionally, and teach them how to comfort themselves, learn about their own strengths and weaknesses and get what they want by working towards it?  How about we let them develop self esteem by earning it- and if they don’t make the cut, how about we teach them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and find another way.  Persistence is one of the Habits of Mind that leads to success.  How about we give them a hug of empathy, share a story of similar hardship and help them get back on their feet?

I guess I feel that competition is a part of the human experience- an important part.  That winning and losing both teach us survival skills.  And that we cannot, as adults, protect children from disappointment without doing them serious damage.  And that we fail, as adults, when we don’t teach children that losing is an opportunity too.

So here we start again with the Colors of the Rainbow competition….Go team!

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