Winning

andrik-langfield-petrides-278739

Photo by ANDRIK ↟ LANGFIELD ↟ PETRIDES on Unsplash

 

I’ve taken a long, intentional hiatus from this blog.

For one thing, there’s a lot of incredibly wonderful writing out in the world these days, and I find I spend most of my time reading it. I’m reading really excellent journalism, fiction, narrative nonfiction and books on the craft of writing.

Sometimes – actually, too often – I read tweets. On my better days, when I’ve tired of reading long form, I read Real Simple or Southern Living, or I just stare at beautiful things on Instagram. I’ve been writing, too, but not for public consumption – not yet, anyway.

In the midst of this reading and private writing, I’ve also been mothering my quickly growing children – children who are, suddenly, no longer babies. And I’ve seen the emergence of a theme, perhaps, a national epidemic.

Unlike so many things today, this isn’t something that can really be politicized, although it certainly contributes to our country’s fractious conversations. It isn’t something I hear a ton of parents debating. It isn’t something that people feel obliged to discuss as right or wrong as it applies to privilege or lack thereof. It just rests, as an undercurrent, beneath the surface of all that is and, according to now, ever will be.

I’m talking about winning.

There have been plenty of studies and articles pointing to teenagers who are over-committed, anxious and stressed. Lots of books have been written about grit, determination, and character development. Doctors and psychologists insist that it is okay for kids to fail – that parents should let them fail.

All that’s fine and good, but I’ve found it flips the issue upside down. If we feel compelled enough by a study, essay or article, we’ll do our damndest to apply the wisdom. We will work hard, really hard, on letting our kids fail with the same fervor we pursue so much of what characterizes our highly-curated lifestyles today.

Our kids will be the failingest kids in the country … and gritty … and determined. Why? Because we’re Americans. We can win at failing, too.

If you look at what’s trending in today’s media, so much is about who’s winning and who’s losing. Everyone has to choose a side, and there is no middle ground. This is an element of today’s culture that I find so exhausting and anxiety-provoking that it makes me want to throw my iPhone in the Harpeth River and let it sink to the bottom.

What our obsession with #winning tells me about where we are as a country is that we are truly, deeply failing, and failing in a way that actually matters. Our collective failure, laid especially bare over these past several months, is a failure to embrace nuance and teach it to kids who need most to understand it.

Nuance. It’s one of my favorite things, really. It’s a reading between the lines, an effort to understand. Nuance offers a holistic approach to life. It requires critical thought, a second, long look. Nuance is useful because, truly, nothing – nothing – is ever, actually, as it seems.

If we lose our ability to acknowledge and appreciate the depth and dimension of all that is at hand, we lose. End of story.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing my children’s lackluster athletic pursuits. The fault of this lies squarely on me. My oldest, now nine and a half, has the form and physique of an athlete. She looks like she was born to do something – to run, scrimmage, or cartwheel her way down a field in pursuit of some big win. She’s tried out a few sports: pirouetted down the soccer field and catapulted her way through gymnastics, sprinted through the water in summer swim team. She’s taken piano and guitar.

But because of my reluctance to upend our entire family’s routine, I haven’t pushed any of these extra-curricular activities, and have even found myself dissuading her from a few based on the time required.

Now that she’s decided that she genuinely loves to swim, I’ve allowed her to pursue it, but, at nine, she’s gotten a late start, and while many of her classmates are on competitive teams, she’s still perfecting her form.

If I didn’t embrace nuance, this could be really hard.

Parents take a lot of pride in their kids’ accomplishments. And the dedication and determination of many young athletes truly is remarkable. Many of these kids are more disciplined than mine are, but there’s a trade-off, too, and that’s what keeps me from turning our weekends into a circus.

Our pediatrician sometimes looks at me curiously when I say my kids (9 and under) are only casually involved in after-school activities. “They’re active, though, right?” he says, knowing me well enough now to anticipate that they’re not spending their afternoons in front of the TV.

Active, yes.

Winning? No.

Because, here’s the thing, and this is what slowly came to light following my middle child’s most recent well check:  What I thought had everything to do with scheduling actually also encompassed this larger conversation. I don’t like today’s insistence on winning; I reject the constant pursuit of prestige to an abnormal degree. I want my kid to be a kid, in the old-fashioned sense, where her interests and passions grow from tiny seeds, not trophies.

Do I think this means my kids will never do anything of value? That they’ll never learn to be disciplined, or to find their passions, or that they will fail so constantly that I’ll be the winningest mom in allowing her kids to fail in the history of the planet? Of course not.

I trust that my kids will find their way, that they will insist on pursuing the things they love when they find them. We will encourage them to move their bodies for the singular joy of moving their bodies. We will expose them to opportunities that might lead to participation, but not push them to try everything, in search of the one thing where they can, with some level of certainty, win.

Plenty of you out there grew up enjoying competitive sports and probably have a different perspective on this than I do, and that’s fine. Your kids are probably more athletic than my kids, too. They may receive real joy from their three practices a week, and you might be able to impart invaluable wisdom to them thanks to your own athletic experiences. That’s great.

Or, you might be a parent who has intensely determined kids who have found a passion that you don’t quite understand, and yet, you’re going with it because they love it. And I’m okay with that, too.

All I’m saying is this: what if we promoted experience and participation over success? Our kids are paying attention. If we champion the gray area a little bit more, it won’t lessen their discipline or determination, but it might make them kinder, more compassionate human beings. And heaven knows we need more of those right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Sunlight and Shade

About a year ago, I added over nine hundred followers to this blog thanks to a post entitled “A Letter to New Mothers,” which appeared on Freshly Pressed. The baby I was so eagerly anticipating when I wrote that essay started kindergarten last week, and leading up to her first day, I felt restless – not so much with worry, but with wonder. What had I done with her for the last five years?

When my first child went off to kindergarten, I had poignant flashbacks of all the fun things we’d done together that I was going to miss – leisurely trips to the zoo, spirited library story times, play dates with friends now scattered across several area schools, and a few who’d moved out of state.

Elizabeth and I kept a very different preschool rhythm. She was happy to play quietly in her room alone or with me, happy to draw or make perler bead art, happy when left with her own imagination to tinker with things that may or may not appear to be toys. She loved an occasional outing, but rarely demanded one.

In the days leading up to kindergarten, I found myself feeling guilty for not having more zoo memories with her. What had we done? We had gone to Target together, where she’d tried on every pair of sunglasses that struck her fancy. We’d drawn with chalk on our driveway and used up several giant sized bottles of bubbles. We’d overcome a year’s worth of furious temper tantrums brought on by the arrival of her baby brother. We’d gone to the grocery store, to buy shoes, and to pick up dry cleaning. We’d curled up on the couch and read book after book, pulled out the baby pool, eaten popsicles, and imagined the most elaborate stories a preschooler can muster.

At the time, it felt to me that I was taking the easy way out – schlepping an ornery two year old and a nine month old to the zoo is no way for a young mother to keep her sanity. (I know, I tried.) But the truth is that the reason being at home felt so easy was that there was really no other place E wanted to be.

Home, not the zoo, or the library, or the playground with a dozen of her friends, is the place where our hearts were sewn together, and, it should come as no surprise, the place where E wishes she were – right this second.

Kindergarten has been in session for a little over a week now, and every day at drop off, or at some point during the day, she’s cried. I’m not talking about a little sniffle. When Elizabeth cries, she gives it her all – true teenage heartbreak channeled by a five year old. After several days of this, I called a counselor I know, and he said, “You know, the problem with society today is that no one wants anything to be hard. Hard is OK. Hard can, in fact, be great.”

I hate it, but I agree with him. If I pulled my girl out of kindergarten right now, it would send the wrong message. She’s big enough and brave enough to know that some things are hard, but that they’re still worth doing.

Confidence is a bear of a thing to cultivate in a child. According to experts, saying “Good job!” too much can eventually have an adverse effect on self-esteem; telling kids they’re smart, rather than hard workers, can make them more anxious about their performance; correcting their bad behavior, rather than effusively praising the good, can make them feel like they never do anything right. Our knee-jerk reactions, like wanting to give Elizabeth another year under my wing, are not always the right ones.

I miss snuggling with E on the couch and hearing her little voice up the stairs, but I don’t want to snuggle her to defeat, or to love her to the point of not knowing what she might accomplish in the face of a challenge. I don’t want her to consider herself a hard worker because I say she is, or for her to measure her worth based on how many times her dad says “good job.” I want her to consider herself a hard worker because she’s carried the load and felt the satisfaction of having done it her way, to know in her heart that whatever she feels pleased to have done is, in fact, as good as it gets.

For the past week, when I’ve tucked Elizabeth in, she’s told me she doesn’t want to go to school, that she’s “not ready,” and/or that she misses me. As painful as all this is to hear, it gives me the opportunity to tell her the truth – something she can return to in five or ten years when other, possibly bigger things, are getting her down – that it’s my job to believe in her, even when she doesn’t believe in herself. I say it, and she looks at me like she’s studying a page in a book:

“What does that even mean, Mama?”

It means that I can see the spark inside her that she’s too clouded over with bewilderment and mommy-wanting to feel. It means that I’m going to pull her along until she can see the beauty of her own mind unfold, until her confidence finally takes root and becomes the thing that takes in sunlight and gives her shade. It means, and this is what I tell her, that I love her, and that she’s going to be okay, even if it doesn’t feel that way quite yet.