In it to Win It

I started following a little debate on Shannon’s PHAT Mommy blog about sports and winning — something I concede I know little about! — that eventually became a debate about “winning” in general.

In the comments she says:

I see many times where life is a win-lose situation. You can win a scholarship, acceptance to college, a job, a promotion, a sale, a new client… in all these situations, someone else “loses” the opportunity. In all these situations, you have to focus on “winning” to accomplish your goal.

That’s in contrast to an attitude she describes in an earlier post:

Every kid on a team gets a trophy. Every child gets to be “student of the month” at least once. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that many corporations are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees — a direct result of a generation raised to expect lavish praise.

At some point, it became politically incorrect to push our kids to win. It’s more accepted to teach them that “it’s just fun to play the game.” It’s no longer OK to tell our children that they can be the best, because that would imply that someone else is not as good.

There’s some dissenting discussion at Chris O’Donnell’s site:

Winning baseball, basketball, or even in business is done by executing the little things properly. The victories to be celebrated in youth sports are not the final outcomes, but the gradual day-to-day improvement that leads to those victories. Little Johnny can’t control the final score, but he can control what he does when at bat or on the field.

My response got so long it was practically a blog post, so I thought I’d move it here. I just wanted to toss out a different perspective — I have a profoundly gifted child and I was considered the same as a young person. I did win tons of things up through college (and once or twice since then 😉 ), often without trying. My daughter gets praise heaped on her for all kinds of things that she can “trounce” her age-level peers at, not because of any serious effort on her part.

In part because of the effortlessness of getting external validation, my gut reaction to competition and praise is a) if I win, it is meaningless, b) I’d sure as hell better win because if I don’t it will let down all the people who think I always win. Luckily I am an adult and I can move past my gut reaction, but there it is. This is not much in the way of a fulfilling achievement.

So yes, in our house we do not emphasize winning, though we do not shy away from the idea of competition — in piano, in games, in spelling, in writing. I am all about process, because when success comes very easily, you need something else to maintain your interest. You may even find that what seems meritorious to others does not seem that way to you, and vice versa.

I am *not* all about fun (just ask my kids!). In fact I agree with Mel Levine, who says that “fun” is the new F word. We should not be asking our kids if a game was fun, a class was fun, etc. We need to ask whether they learned something interesting, or whether something interesting happened. I can agree that doing things solely because they are fun is not a good philosophy of life.

But I would also maintain that “winning” is not the right word here. “Win” has a strong connotation of triumphing over something else. That’s not my model of life. I’m not out to vanquish anything or anyone, not even my own dark side. (But that’s a whole other discussion!) I don’t think that’s the way to knowledge and understanding, and those are my highest values. (I’m an Enneagram 5 and a Virgo . . . if that tells you anything.)

To me, the “everyone is equally brilliant” mentality and the “focus on winning” mentality are 2 sides of the same coin, because both take as their assumption that external measures of value are the most important. A child (or adult) knows whether or not she is doing her best, and ought to learn to trust that rather than a grade, score, or trophy. Emphasizing rewards or status (1st place, 3rd place, etc.) –whether earned by someone’s idea of “merit” or earned by showing up and having a pulse– comes at the expense of developing that self-awareness and self-accountability.

O’Donnell’s point is key: you can do your very very best, and work as hard you possibly can, and factors beyond your control can still prevent you from getting the client, the job, the scholarship, the spot at MIT . . . If the prize is most important, I think the best you can do with that reality is say, “why bother?” If being accountable to yourself and your own values (even including enjoying what you’re doing) comes first, then the prize is just the icing on the cake.

So why compete? Because you like what you do, you like doing it with others who like what you do, you like the little frisson of excitement from being on stage, and yes, now and then it’s nice to have a little affirmation. But ideally when you go home with the trophy you look at it not because you need that affirmation again, but you want to remember the enjoyment and the feeling of satisfaction of knowing that you did your best.



Filed under Gifted Ed, Gifted Heart and Soul, Learning Styles, Our Philosophy (such as it is), Why Homeschool?

2 responses to “In it to Win It

  1. Very interesting post. I agree with you absolutely, although I must admit I praise my dd’s product too much. I am getting better and now explain why I am pleased with it (eg, that she worked so hard, she put real effort in, she thought about her design, etc). If you give children too much external validation, they don’t have the chance to develop an inward sense of that for themselves. On the other hand, I’ve seen teachers go too far and only praise the process when the child is clearly hanging out for a simple, “hey, great picture.” So I try to balance it.

    Both attitudes – “everyone is a winner” and “focus on winning” – repel me. I feel the same as you, that it should be about what you are actually learning.

  2. JJ

    I found my way here through COD’s blog and really enjoyed the way you see it, especially from a gifted and musical family (we have the intellectual gifted thing as a theme too, but our musical gifts are pretty much limited to singing and musical theatre.)

    I see the debate about competition much the same as your view here, infinite layers of challenge and meaning within each experience for each individual to discover and define, and then of course the BIG Challenge of life and learning is figuring out how all that works, and how to discipline yourself, and it, in everything you do. 🙂

    I only started to learn this after a whole school and work life far too subject to the external demands and judgments of others. Our always-unschooled kids have done MUCH better though, and every day is an intellectual joy that no one had ever taught me was possible, We sort of stumbled into it through the back door . . .

    Nice to find your blog (I read a couple of other posts too) and I’d like to come back now and then if you wouldn’t mind the visits. And do come see us at our wordpress blogs Snook and Snook Too (my gifted teen has her own new blog now.)


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