Friday, April 8, 2011

Developing the competitive spirit: So what if your parents let you win?

I was out with the kids and my husband on the grounds of USC today, and as usual when on that campus, we freely availed ourselves of the grassy hills and wide-open spaces by running and playing over as much of the grounds as we could.

After playing like a fool with the kids for a while, it was my husband's turn, and I stood back to catch my breath. Our daughter initiated a game of tag with my husband, and I watched them, amused. She kept running up to tap him on the leg and say "Tag, you're it," but as soon as she turned to run away, he would swat her easily on the back or hip as she ran and say "No, you're it!" 

After this they would both laugh, then she would spin to chase him again and the cycle would repeat itself. As I watched, our daughter began to get frustrated with the ease with which he tagged her back despite her best efforts to away quickly. Each time he tagged her, I noticed her shoulders slump sharply, and she'd let out an increasingly disappointed "Awww!"

"Give her a moment to get away," I said quietly but firmly to my husband after watching this for a few minutes.

"No!" he said, as he swatted her yet again on the back as she ran after tagging him yet again. "This will build her competitive spirit!"

I smiled and shrugged, knowing she was enjoying the game, and also not certain that my suggestion was the right one - rather, I just knew it was what I would do in that situation. 

But, I reasoned, I'm the mommy. He's the daddy. There's a difference. 

At least, there had been a difference in my family. In my family, my mom was the more nurturing one, the one who was quick to hug, cuddle, or offer a compliment or reassurance. As for my dad, he was also nurturing - a kind and gentle man. But he was also an honest man; direct, and less willing to coddle. If he saw something a certain way, he'd tell me so. For example, at age 17 after I returned home from my first semester at school in the UK, he was the only one who pointed out that I'd gained a few pounds - and by few, I mean 15-20.

My mom would never have done that.

Similar to not being able to speak his mind, my dad was also unable to hold back in physical or strategic games. When playing checkers, he always won. I never won, not once. Not even a pity win. I was never good enough. In a wrestling match, he always won. He was 6'4" tall and I was less than 10 years old, so really, I guess the outcome was inevitable, but I still fought as hard as I could ever time... and every time, he pinned me easily, until I cried.

At my tears, my dad would always immediately let up and tell me he was no longer going to play with me - after all, it didn't make him feel good to drive his daughter to tears - but I would beg and plead with him to play, certain that I could beat him just once if I just tried hard enough... so we'd try again, and sure enough, as mightily as I would fight, he'd pin me again... and again I'd burst into tears.

My dad simply didn't see why he should lessen his game, beit checkers or wrestling, to make it easier for me to win. I guess he didn't think he was doing me any favors that way.

I'll never know the exact reason why - my dad passed away when I was 19 years old. He died very suddenly in our home in the early hours of the morning. It was a stroke... he never knew what hit him.

Even if he hadn't died suddenly, however, I'd probably still never know. After all, "Why didn't you ever let me win at checkers," was probably not at the top of the list of topics requiring investigation. But still, watching my husband play with our daughter on this day... it made me wonder.

Why is it that my mom and I would ease-up or "play dumb" to let our children win, while our male counterparts would not? And, more interesting... which approach was right?

At first thought, rather predictably, I felt certain my way was best - after all, I reasoned, it's more important to encourage a child by allowing them to experience and relish success, than to crush their spirits by never allowing them to win.

But then, I realized this: it's not that my husband and dad never wanted us to experience the joy of winning - it's that they wanted us to earn it. What's more, they refused to cheapen the experience by giving it away.

Some may think I'm reading too much into this - it was a game of tag, for goodness sake - but I have seen this tendency in my husband before and in other parents, and it always intrigues me.

As for what's best, I think the (somewhat convenient) answer is that what we are doing now with our kids is best - that is, we have one parent who coddles them a bit more and allows them to celebrate smaller victories, and we have one parent who challenges them more to hit harder, jump higher, turn sharper... tag faster.

If my kids are like me, they will end up appreciating both of these styles for different reasons. My mom was always the one I'd turn to when I needed comforting or a soft place to fall, and that, I appreciated to no end. My dad, on the other hand, was the one I went to for more sage advice... there was no sugar coating with my dad, and I valued his opinion highly for that very reason. When my mom gave her opinion, it was easier to brush it off... she was the softie; she was my mom. But when my dad talked - you listened. And when my dad gave a compliment - you knew it was earned.

As for that win in the game of checkers, that was something I never earned - not sharp enough for him, I guess. But I kept trying. It light a fire under me, and I kept trying... I'd leave each game disappointed, cursing inwardly as I just couldn't believe he'd won so easily yet again... but still, I'd always be back for more, every time.

Watching my husband, I had initially thought he was teaching our daughter that she could not beat him, that she was not good enough... but perhaps he was teaching her perseverance.

After all, Sevilla never stopped running, not even as he tagged her again and again, just seconds after she tagged him... she kept going back for more. As had happened with the wrestling, the game was halted only when the parent said "Ok, that's enough!"

In both cases, it was not the child that called "uncle" first... it was the parent.

It's ok that I'll never get to play another game of checkers with my dad - I was never that good at it in the first place. But I'd love to hear what he thought about trail running. About ultras. About 100 mile races. About a lot of things, really.

But, I can only guess these things, and that's ok. I'll just smile and continue to watch my own children laugh and run and play.

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