Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Play To Win

Some days I feel like a winner and other days I feel like a loser and, while that's not seen as a healthy way to look at the world, there's not much I can do about it. I 'm no "thought leader" whose raging success demands my outlook on life should be followed for you to attain fame, riches and accomplishments. But I'm doing alright. There's this prevailing attitude that putting things in terms of winning and losing is negative and unhelpful and bad. Of course those people at the top of their chosen professions don't seem to have much of a problem with competition, winning etc.

It's just so much crap saying that things like winning and being the best at something don't matter. Somebody like my dad would say it's a typically Canadian attitude - celebrating showing up. Happy to be asked to the party. Happy to participate. Maybe that's changing somewhat with the last couple of Olympics and it certainly doesn't apply to Olympic or professional hockey but at pretty much everything else Canadians seem to be content to celebrate mediocrity or second best. I think it's more modern than strictly Canadian, though other countries do seem to be more OK with open triumph.

Kids have to be taught to accept mediocrity. In our house we were pumped to watch the summer Olympics but, after the first few days, my second son was outraged at our performance. Why weren't we doing better? Why did we not get more medals? I tried to give him the party line - small country, doing better than we have, we're a winter sport country etc. but pretty soon those explanations sounded hollow to me too. Eventually, he grew disinterested in the whole thing - why would he want to watch us lose? Fair point.

I used to teach swimming and when it was time for the badges to be handed out those kids who didn't pass and get their badges were MAD. Some of them wanted to jump back in the pool and prove they could do it. But what do we do now? We give out medals and badges for everything. It is insidiuous because it diminishes actual accomplishment. Someone just told me at a Christmas party that our school board is considering getting rid of competive sports for kids under Grade Three because of this fear of competition. It's just so wrongheaded.


I remember an old Charlie Brown mug when I was kid that said, "Winning May Not Be Everything But Losing Isn't Anything". The focus cannot be solely on winning, you need to develop skills and teamwork and strategy and love of playing but without a chance at winning many kids who are wired that way won't participate - it becomes some lame adult-committee-designed game that's no fun. Turn kids loose of adult supervision and the games quickly become ruthlessly cutthroat. Kids are not scared of losing - we're scared of them losing. When kids play tag, someone is it; when kids play hide and seek, there is a winner; when kids have a race, someone is last. These are the games kids naturally love to play and, sure, some kids are sucky when they lose but they need to learn how to deal with that. The solution should not be there are no losers it should be don't be the loser next time. There are lots of other activities which are cooperative or expressive - keep those, they're good - but don't get rid of those games which are competitive. Why? Because they're FUN.

We play to win in this house. We play a lot of games - sports, cards, board games, tiddlywinks, computer games etc.; I've got three boys - you keep them active or the next thing you know you've got the fire department at your house. And my guys do not want to lose. Every so often I try that on - "No you didn't come in first, second and last - you came in first second, and third." They look at me, "No, he LOST. HE was LAST. He wasn't third." They smell the stink of pollyannaism and reject it. Good for them.

It's crucial for them to lose and lose often at games - but not so that they learn to like it. No. To remind them of how much they HATE it and to work hard to make sure they don't have to feel that feeling again. Also to learn it is not the end of the world to lose and that you can always try again to win. I do not let my kids beat me at games - ever. I see what happens when dads let their kids beat them - sure the kids learn an important lesson - their dad is a loser who can't even beat a 5, 7 or 10 year old. Ever wonder why they don't respect or listen to you? You've got nothing to teach them. And you're not helping them get any better either.

Mind you I don't grind them into the ground - I keep it competitive but at the end if I can win, I do. Eventually they will beat me and they will know it means they have tried, persevered and improved. That something they couldn't do they now can. OK I do occasionally gloat a little bit when I win, maybe there's a little taunting but that sure makes them want to win all the more. And I can admit it's going to be tough for me to take. But I will take it like a man: Smiling, shaking hands and deep inside vowing to crush my opponent next time.

Now sometimes this competitive thing can have a different outcome - the kid walks away from the activity. But this is not necessarily all bad - the kid is choosing how to spend his time and ranking his interests - it's not so important to play that game and always lose because that isn't fun. Again, I try and keep it within reach, and encourage them, give them tips on how to win (and these they actually listen to sometimes because in this instance you've shown yourself to know what you're talking about - unlike most of the other advice you try and give them.) And as well making sure they find something they do enjoy competing at.

So backgammon is on the game schedule these days and I was regularly trouncing my second son resulting in tears and upset.

Sidenote: Do all dads have trouble with tears or is it only with dads of boys? Or just me? I actually don't have any problem with them when it comes to injuries but I'm impatient with those tears that spring from frustration, tantrums and not getting their way. I'm sure I'm supposed to give them a hanky and tell them to let it all out but ultimately I can't do it. It's not doing them any favours.  I hate when people try and get around things by crying - it is essentially the ploy of the subservient person begging for charity or pity. And I don't go for that. Ask for help, admit wrongdoing, make an argument but don't start crying as a way to get what you want. Tears are associated with being "girly" because historically that's the only way females could get what they wanted - out of the charity, compassion or pity of men. That was wrong and remains so today but now that women have the same opportunities as men (I know there's an argument about that) there is no excuse for them to be treated differently. Tears are not the sign of being a "girl" or a "sissy" they are the signs of being weak and not an equal worthy of respect or who has a valid claim. That's not the way I'd want any of my family to be regarded.

Your tears are most illogical.

Kids need to learn to accept defeat and frustrations with dignity and good grace - and then figure out how to overcome them. When my oldest gets teary because I point out that he's rushed his work and not done a good job, I comfort him briefly but, if the weeping continues and nothing else is happening, I ask if the tears are helping get the job done? No? Well, then it seems an illogical and ineffiecient way of spending his time. He bears down and gets it done and I praise him for his hard work, his persistence and his real achievement. And he needs to learn this mental toughness because he is a sensitive and creative kid who is naturally inclined to avoid hard work and failure. I can't blame him, I am lazy and still try and avoid doing things I'm not good at. But I wish I had learned this lesson earlier.

A couple of years ago, my middle one (likely the most nakedly competitive though the third is showing some extremely competive behaviour lately) was regularly throwing tantrums if he lost at games, kicking over the board etc. This brought back memories of my own brother who was a terrible loser. I mentioned his nephew's behaviour to my brother and asked for any insights on how to deal with it. Turns out he's still a terrible loser (actually I already knew that) and only really started getting somewhat of a handle on it late in life. He pointed out that phrases like "playing for fun" "making friends" etc. held no water for him - he wanted to win and winning was fun and he liked being friends with people who also liked to win.

Here's my brother recently winning an award for Most Promising Company.
This intel was helpful. The next time my son lost and was about to freak out, I told him that he had to learn to be a good loser because if he didn't then people wouldn't want to play with him (Visible reaction - 'Who cares? Adult talking touchy-feely garbage that bears no relation to my feelings, tune it out') and that if they didn't play with him then he would never be able to beat them (Visible reaction - 'What?' Tears stopped. Gears commenced grinding and he nodded like, 'Finally, someone is talking sense. The lies have stopped and I discover the truth'). It was like a scene out of a conspiracy film when the hero finds out what is really going on.

At last - The Truth!

I went up to my wife and told her in some excitement that I'd had this breakthrough. She was very disturbed that this is what got through to our son. But, what the hell, it worked. And I have to be honest - I don't worry about him at all. He's going to be alright.

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