My son recently participated in a competitive sporting event. He played three heats, and in each one lost to his opponent. He was quite disappointed because he went into the competition thinking he had a good chance of winning. The event organizers had enough foresight to prepare one trophy for each child who participated. When my son and my husband came home, I asked how it went and my son said despondently, “I have a trophy.” When I congratulated him, he said: “No, you don’t understand, it just means I lost."
That stumped me. When I was growing up, trophies were handed out only to those who won. Being a very uncoordinated girl meant that I had none to show for athletics. I did have one or two for a math contest, but I think I promptly misplaced them because trophies were not a big deal in our household.
Fast forward three decades. In my own family, I try to instill in my boys that effort is just as important as the outcome – sometimes even more so. It doesn’t really matter to me whether they are the top of the class or not, but whether they gave it their best shot. Maybe they did, and someone else was just naturally more gifted (or luckier).
My son’s most recent acquisition won’t occupy any special prominence among his things. How do I explain to a Chinese mother intent on seeing her own child grow up and make his mark that the trophy she takes so much vicarious pride in is in fact a symbol of what went wrong? It wouldn’t make sense to her, just as this doesn’t make sense to me now: Since when is it not OK to not make the cut?
I think that my generation, born and raised in the 70s, had it easier. Winning was winning and losing was losing. There was a lot we didn’t sugarcoat in those days. You didn’t try hard enough, so you lost – too bad. You could cry but the result remained the same. So you try harder next time.
More kids these days seem less experienced in losing. There is almost always an extra chance or perhaps a consolation prize. “Good job,” we say to boost their ego. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it seems to give children a misguided sense that everything is good enough or high enough or fast enough. What about the times when their efforts fell short?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t breathe down my sons’ necks. I nag when it is important, but I also allow them to make mistakes and realize the consequences of not trying hard enough. I make them stop doing homework at a certain time of night, preferring that they go to school with incomplete work and explain to their teacher that their mother made them stop rather than continue beyond 10pm. When they call me from school to say they have left something at home and could I pretty please bring it for them, I say no. I do not want to raise them on a diet of being run around after. In that sense, I am the mean mother who doesn’t up their chances at claiming that trophy.
Call me cold-hearted, but I believe that these are life lessons they need to learn. Sometimes they won’t feel like or be able to put in 100 percent. They can’t expect to win in such situations – and that’s fine. Is this sound parenting? I don’t know, but I trust that I am teaching them that there is more to life than winning.
In the meantime, we know we won’t need to have any trophy shelves built in our house.
Photo by Bob Dass (Flickr)
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.