Today my daughter came home from school with a heartfelt message which was hard to hear. They had had a visit from a motivational speaker. However the message my daughter had brought away was far from motivational. She’s a deep thinker, who pays a lot of attention to detail. Motivation is exactly what she needs but it’s amazing how the message you think you’re sending can be completely misconstrued and misinterpreted in the hands of a child.
“Mummy he said life is a competition.” A 5 times gold medal karate winner you would understand his thinking. She continued; “Well if that’s true then I don’t think I want to live anymore! I hate competition.” Such a stark statement coming from such a young child. A deep thinker who followed with “you always say life isn’t a competition.”
“Do I?” I asked her not really remembering this to be true. Yet she was confident that was the lesson I was teaching her. That life wasn’t a competition and that the only person you should be in competition with is yourself, so you can continue to better yourself; to learn and improve.
“A flower does not think of competing with the flowers next to it. It just blooms.” Zen Shin
And so I am left wondering what do we teach our children about competition?
For me healthy competition can be a wonderful thing. It teaches children to better themselves and to strive to be the best they can be. We all want our children to succeed be it academically, socially, athletically, creatively or in any other way that is important to us. And sometimes the best way for them to do it is to compete. My eldest daughter hates competition. My youngest daughter however, lives for it. One daughter shys away from being the best; when she achieves she plays it down, when she wins she can’t accept it, when she does better than her peers she can’t believe it to be true. By comparison the other loves winning, she asks if her work is harder than her peers, she wants to be the best; at everything, her confidence soars whilst her sisters sinks. And yet both children have been brought up with the same morals, the same parenting, the same ideals. Both have been taught that competition can be healthy. It can help you improve, it can make you want to better yourself, it can make you win, it can mean you are the best.
However children are not the same. They are all good at different things. They all have their own unique abilities. We do have competition in life; in sports, in cooking, in academia, in so many areas. But one thing remains the same the competition is always to see who is the best in that specific area. And therefore competition is important for without it we may never know what we could achieve. We may never better ourselves. We may never be the truest version of ourselves. For without competition there is no reason to do any better. Competition therefore allows us, drives us and enables us to try harder, be better, it helps us to break through the barriers of possibility, escaping the clutches that hold us back, and drive us forward.
However I am also a strong believer in not comparing children. I believe that each will develop at their own rate, when each is ready. That children all have strengths and weaknesses in different areas to their peers. And that comparing them is detrimental to their achievement and success. And so it is hard to strike the balance. To encourage your child to focus on themselves but to see competition as healthy way to improve. There will always be competition in their lives and for that we have to prepare them.
They may win, they may lose but within each is an important lesson. Winning brings with it feelings of elation, happiness, success and achievement. They can be satisfied that they are the best and only strive to continue that winning streak. They may however rest on their laurels, feeling that there is no longer the need to try. They are already at the top, there is nowhere left they can climb. We must teach them that they must try harder still. Would an Olympic gold medalist stop at one? No, they would try harder still to win more gold medals. Would a double trophy winning football team stop trying the following season. No, they would try to win the double again and they would even strive for the treble.
And what if they lose, should we wrap them up in cotton wool, cover their eyes, shield them from their loss and explain it away? I say no, in fact we must let them feel their sadness, disappointment and upset. We must help them to understand their feelings and work through them. Knowing that they will pass and knowing that they will emerge from the depths of these difficult feelings, stronger, braver and better than before. Knowing that these feelings will drive them to try harder, work harder and strive harder next time. And maybe next time they will win and maybe they still won’t but when they do they will know elation, happiness, success and achievement more than ever before because they have worked harder and longer for it. They will have earnt those feelings, worked for their achievement and winning will feel that much better. We must teach our children that their role models fought hard and worked hard to achieve their goals, they didn’t stop at the first hurdle – the audition they didn’t get, the team the didn’t get into, the job interview they didn’t get through; the tried again and again and again until eventually they won. And in defeat we can teach them to be humble and loving and kind. To support their friends and peers who did win. To be gracious in defeat. To be happy that someone else has had their time knowing that their own will come one day. Knowing that being humble and kind will treat them well and knowing that this person also worked as hard as they did and deserves their recognition and their time to shine.
“Don’t compare your life to others. There’s no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it is their time.” Author uknown
And so do I believe life is a competition? No I don’t, but I do believe that life is full of competitions and we can help to prepare our children for both the winning and losing. I believe that competition can be healthy but that we must teach our children that they will have to compete but even then they should focus on being the best they can be and not in comparing themselves to others. So to my daughter who often wins but doesn’t like to win I say be confident, be proud and own those wins because your peers will be proud of you, happy for you and will love for you for your talents. And to my daughter who loves to win I say keep striving to be the best but if and when you lose, because there will be times when you will lose, be gracious, be kind, be proud and happy for your friends who have worked just as hard and know that your time will come. Because it will come and when it does it will be wonderful.
“I never lose. I either win or I learn.” Martin Luther King
Remember there is always a lesson we can teach our children. You just have to be open and look hard enough to find it. It may not always be an easy lesson and it may even be one we wish we didn’t have to teach but that just means its even more important that we teach it.