Why Are We So Afraid Of The C-Word?

I attended the annual ‘cross country’ at the small human’s school recently…no, that’s not the c-word, though it does still send waves of panic through me whenever I hear it.

Firstly, as an English person, I need to be clear…when I was growing up ‘cross country’ involved freezing temperatures, rain, encounters with sheep and if there was a thick blanket of fog, all the better to torture you with. This was a positively balmy 70+ degree day – though the little darlings still had on their school jumpers – and consisted of what I can only describe as a bunch of overly excited, hyped-up primary school kids running around a small patch of grass at the front yard of the school – cross country it was not, but the most talked about event of the week (for some the month) it certainly was.

It was my first time attending one of these, as usually I am stuck at work being sent reassuring messages from friends with pictures of yet another – conveniently scheduled in middle of the day – school event I have missed. But we’ll save the issues of being a working mother for another time!

As I walked in, a smattering of parents had already arrived, some hanging back, keeping a positively nonchalant distance (I joined them) and others up front-and-centre ready to capture their child’s moment of glory on their smartphone, to send to their grandparents, friends, colleagues, hairdresser etc. All power to them, I wish I could muster half their enthusiasm.

Before the races began a teacher duly reminded the children over a megaphone that the point of the event was to have FUN and it was about PARTICIPATION. Nothing like a firm reminder that the point of the race is not in the winning and must be enjoyed to really bring on the FUN…and heck, whatever you do, do not call it a…(whispers) Competition!

As the first group lined up, the parents edged forward to get a better view. Off they went spurred on by parents and their peers. Two laps around the track and often the ‘winners’ were way ahead. As they approached the finish they we greeted with clapping and cheering, midway through the group, though less effusive, the parents duly clapped, by the end, the last to cross the line was greeted with the odd encouraging clap (likely from their own parent or a family friend/stand-in), the little trooper barely noticed among the chaos of teachers trying to get the names of the winners (though remember, it’s about fun and participation!) and re-organising the adrenaline-fueled monkeys back into some semblance of order.

After the first few races I started to make a point of applauding the kids crossing last. They gave it a go, some their best, others, well, it’s fair to say perhaps cross country may not be their thing just yet. Either way, still worthy of recognition and plus, I didn’t want them to feel bad…for losing…that’s right, I used the L-word too!

Then it began, a few kids who had set the stakes high on winning, or even just placing in the top three, but hadn’t made it, were crying – another c-word we are to avoid at all costs, right? Overwhelmed by the frustration and disappointment they were greeted with the comforting words, ‘it’s ok, don’t worry about it, you gave it a great shot, as long as you did your best, it doesn’t matter where you came’. And immediately I wanted to throw my hands in the air and shout, ‘Well, that’s great isn’t it! Forget all this namby-pamby ‘it’s all about participation’, it’s a bloody competition and the kids want to win and now look, they’re crying! We line them up against each other with no regard to physical stature or fitness, schlep in an audience IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY, and when their dream of victory comes crashing down, they feel awful. It’s just completely unfair! Can someone please pass me the cotton wool, it’s time to wrap them back up again – is that a chill in the air?”

Thankfully, as an introvert, just standing in the crowd is a huge leap for me, so speaking, let alone shouting my mind is never on the cards. As I listened to myself it occurred to me, I grew up in a culture that focussed on excelling. There were no prizes for second best. You Snooze, You Loose, Winner Takes All, The Early Bird Catches The Worm…Now it seems, there are prizes for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, oh hell, you turned up, let’s give you one too. Naturally, we don’t want our children to suffer disappointment. Because we sure as hell did and it felt awful, right? Of course we want to protect them from that gut wrenching, chest crushing realisation that they are not, in fact, perfect after all. We measure up watermelon slices and count out M&Ms (some of us dividing them by colours, yes, that’s right!) because want everything to be ‘fair’ and truth be told, we also want to avoid the conflict and moans when it’s not…we have to pick our battles! But, as we all well know, life isn’t always fair. And the more we protect them from the disappointments and challenges of ‘failure’ the less we are preparing them for the real world.

I admit, it crossed my mind to suggest that they create a ribbon for coming last to comfort the poor loves. But on second thought, maybe we could be rewarding those who came last for being graceful in their defeat and for being resilient? Perhaps we need to debrief after these events and talk to those most disappointed by their experience as well as those who succeeded, in order to help them to learn to accept and overcome their losses, as well as celebrate their wins?

Naturally having fun and just taking part is important, though perhaps if ‘fun’ were a prerequisite when I was at school, cross country wouldn’t have lasted! But is it also a good opportunity to reflect on how we cope with a disappointing result? Had I been given the skills as a kid to ‘bounce back’ after my apparent ‘failures’ I am positive I would have taken more chances and achieved greater things. They say you don’t regret what you do, more so what you didn’t do, and a fear of failure is certainly something that has held many of us back, no?

My small human immediately noted her place as ‘3rd from last’ which technically meant she came 9th of 11. Last year she came 4th so a dramatic change in the less than desirable direction. One classmate pointed out that she was pleased because although she was ‘4th from last’ she still beat her personal best of last place from the previous year – illustrating the value of encouraging them to improve on their own goals, competing more so with themselves rather than measuring themselves purely against each other.

There are positive aspects to competition. I don’t think there is anything wrong with kids seeing that there are others better than them at something. Handled in the right way that can serve as inspiration. If a kid is really good at something it most likely won’t be purely inherent. We can encourage them to talk to each other about their achievements and how they got there, but also the challenges they faced along the way and how they overcame them. If we can get them to do that in a way that inspires rather than intimidates, celebrating the resilience and the ‘misses’, we could create a culture of growth that will elevate them as a group. In his TED Talk Astro Teller, “Captain of Moonshots” (CEO) at X, an semi-secret, innovative parent company of Google, explained how they encourage and actually reward staff for finding faults in projects and shutting them down. By giving bonuses and even promotions and making it ‘safe to fail’ they encourage their teams to search for radical solutions that will change the world, by running headlong into the hardest parts of the problem first, ‘We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong.’ I know right? Who doesn’t want THAT job?!

I was working out how to tackle the debrief at hometime. The small human was surely going to be disappointed, I was disappointed for her. But she didn’t practice, she didn’t train, no work went into preparing for the event of the week (month, year for some) so she (and I) needed to be realistic about the result. But rather than telling her it didn’t matter where she came, devaluing how she felt about not meeting her own expectations, and telling her it was all about the participation, I was going to ask her how she felt about it and what she would like the outcome to be next year and what she would do differently now she’s been through it. Then, if ‘cross country’ is to be her thing, we’d work on that, and if not, then she can set realistic expectations for next time. It would be one of those great in-depth conversations where we’d both learn and grow together, hug it out and high five…

Of course, when she came home she had absolutely no interest is discussing the race;

Did you have fun? Yes. (Silence)

Are you glad you took part? Yes. (Silence – remember, open questions…)

How do you feel about where you came? Disappointed. (Silence)

Would you be keen to do it again? Yeah…mum, what’s for dinner? (skips to the kitchen)

Erm, let me see what’s in the fridge…(makes mental note: maybe spend less time worrying and more time planning dinner…damnit!)

So, while ‘cross country’ was never my thing, I do think competition can still be fun. It isn’t all about winning and it’s not just about taking part. We all need to take a moonshot once in a while, but showing kids how to pick yourself up and dust yourself down when you don’t meet your own expectations, learning from the experience and then getting right back on out there, surely that’s where the real winning begins?

Love, Jem

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