My daughter is in kindergarten and suddenly everything seems to be a competition. EVERYTHING. Who has the most friends. Who can talk about butts the longest. Who can read the fastest. Whether having a baby brother or sister is better. I wish I were kidding. The other day my five-year old came home sad because she has a baby sister instead of a baby brother and apparently the other kids think having a baby brother is better…so yeah, every aspect of life has become a competition, but it shouldn’t be. Sure, we can compete at a spelling bee and a track meet. We can compete when it comes to the science fair or who can hold their breath the longest, but come on, can we draw the line…somewhere?
I know in the United States we value competition over all things…even human decency at times, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy. Can we just add in a dash of collectivism here and there? Can we just acknowledge that we don’t always have to be the best to still add value? Heck, I’d even argue that most things happen because people just show up with their imperfect selves and get things done quietly and with little recognition. I’m trying to teach these things to my daughter, but I am no match for the outside world where a winner and loser must be declared in all things. I mean, some aspects of life are just luck or beyond our control. Especially when you are a kid. Some of my daughter’s school mates don’t even have enough to eat everyday and yet they are pitted against the children of doctors with every advantage given to them from birth.
I know, childhood is rough and kids are mean, but do we have to foster the cruelty by making everything a competition? My daughter gets a sticker or a prize every week for bringing in a book reading log that I fill out each day. I make sure it’s in her backpack every Monday. I read the books to her too! So, she gets a prize for my efforts and some other kid doesn’t get a prize because his or her mom was too busy working or taking care of babies or dealing with who knows what to get that book log completed. Yet, the kids with the book log get to walk around feeling superior to those without a book log. Superior for passively listening to a story that was read to them. Why are we fostering this empty competition in kindergarten anyway? Already we have the haves and have-nots. Five year old kids are not even responsible for what they have or don’t have. Why are we rewarding them for it or singling out the kids who seem to be lacking it…whatever “it” might be?
Before kindergarten my daughter rarely compared herself to others. Sure, some kids had a cool bike or red hair or an older brother and she may have wished she could have those things, but she never felt inferior for not having them. She never cried because she wasn’t “enough” of a human being because her sibling was a girl instead of a boy. Is that kind of competition really necessary to make our world go round? Can we also acknowledge that team work and finding strengths in our peers abilities can also contribute to capitalism, life fulfillment, and even scientific discovery?
I know, right about now you are probably thinking about how I am blowing this all out of proportion. You are rolling your eyes because I am some cranky mom upset that her child has to deal with other children and learn that life is hard and cruel and mean people exist. The thing is, this is so much more than that. This nonsense competition sets us up for a lifetime of feeling inadequate and confused by our lack of “celebrity” or why we never did anything amazing with our lives, despite the fact that we have lived really good lives. Despite the fact that we have contributed to society in both big ways and small without receiving applause or accolades for our efforts.
We can say it’s just kids being kids, but this silly competitiveness happens with adults too. I mean, let’s face it, most of us are pretty average people. That’s what average is all about, right? It means that is where most of us fall. Unfortunately, we’ve grown up with this message that we are all supposed to be special and “extra” in some way. When we aren’t all that special we have to manufacture competition so we can feel superior to others, or even worse, make others feel inferior so we can feel superior. It’s so exhausting. Some people even engage in a competition over who has the worst life, the more debilitating depression, sleeps the least, doesn’t have time to eat well, or who can be the most miserable in general just to be THE BEST at something. That’s an unhealthy way to live, isn’t it?
Jim and I recently met a couple. We were making the usual small talk when we started noticing that anything anyone mentioned the husband was quick to point out how he did “whatever” too, but faster and better. He would just start talking over anyone else attempting to speak to ensure that they couldn’t add their experience to the conversation. I thought maybe he was fearful he’d be one-upped by someone’s contribution to x, y, or z. The wife was hell-bent on making sure we knew how “weird” they were. That they were different in ways we could only imagine. That they were weirder than weird and incredibly special in their weirdness. She seemed so desperate to win this weirdness competition, that I wasn’t even competing in, so I just started nodding and murmuring encouraging words about how they were certainly the weirdest people I’d ever had the pleasure to meet. I wanted her to have her moment of feeling special because she seemed to really need it.
Here we are, mature adults still trying to one-up one another on the playground. Where does it all start? For my little one it all began with school where everything is turned into a competition. I just hope this competitiveness doesn’t continue for her into adulthood. I hope my quiet assertions and example can combat outside influences at least enough to make her stop and question things. I hope she can choose to be competitive when competition is appropriate and choose to be content in her own abilities the rest of the time.
I find myself slowing down and thinking about these things as my daughters grow. Life isn’t a competition. It feels like one more often than not because we force ourselves to compete in all areas of our lives. We tell young people to only compete with themselves and we shout slogans like “I am enough,” but until we actually start believing it ourselves and accepting that every aspect of life is not a competition we are going to continue to get the same results. I’m pretty sure we can do better and maybe we should start with kindergarten.