Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Why 'winning at all costs' is harmful to your child's upbringing

Superheroes equals Superkids – super strategies to pop the pressure balloon
Nick van der Leek interviews five families and an expert and discovers that just being ourselves and having fun is better (and healthier) than trying to win at all costs

‘I dream of a day when we celebrate people not just for world-record–breaking times, but for their courage and positive attitude, as well.’  - Maria Rodale, CEO of the world's largest independent health book and magazine publishers

 ‘There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers.’ Ever heard that before?  When we start to see ourselves either as winners or losers, this can really bleed the fun out of taking part, and make children (and parents) feel depressed and miserable.
An excellent movie that explores this theme is a light-hearted gem called Little Miss Sunshine. A little girl (played by a cute-as-a-button Abigail Breslin) decides to enter a beauty contest, and her dad, a motivational speaker, summarises what seems to be a common sense approach, when he says to her: ‘Now there's no sense in entering a contest if you don't think you're gonna win. Now, do you think you can win Little Miss Sunshine?  Yes or no, Olive?’ Olive decides yes, and the whole family tries to rally behind her, even when it’s obvious that she has no chance of winning.  The question the movie poses is:  When the pressures of personal failures accumulate, do we become dysfunctional?  Do we cheat? Do we start to unravel?  Is it possible to take ‘not winning’ in our stride?
Little Miss Sunshine also touches on two keystones in dealing with the counterfeit culture of ‘winning at all costs’.  Grandpa, played by Alan Alda says: ‘A real loser is someone who's so afraid of not winning he doesn't even try.’ And Olive’s mother scores a home run when she resists pressure from the family to give up on the contest at the last moment (fearing Olive may humiliate herself) by telling her son and husband, ‘Just let Olive be Olive.’ 
Here’s how five other South African families deal with the competitive stresses and strains society puts on them.
Alex Otto 41, Janet 38, Jocelyn 11, Cailin 9 from Johannesburg

We do want the girls to be committed to giving their best in their academics, and in their choice of sports / instruments. We believe that God has given them certain talents, and they need to put in the necessary time and effort to use their talents well.
Sometimes, we have found that we can pass on unhelpful, subconscious messages to our children; for instance, when we feel that they should be able to do the things that we found easy as children, or should be able to do what their peers are doing. 
We need to constantly check our expectations, and not be pressured into trying to keep up with what everyone else is doing; we then consider our values and our children's unique abilities in order to guide their growth in the right direction.
Alex is quite a competitive cyclist / athlete, the girls are used to him doing really well in the events he competes in - often this means a podium position. They are rather unimpressed when he doesn't make the podium....
As for me, I compete for the sake of having something to train for, for the enjoyment of it and to stay fit - this doesn't really make sense to the girls yet. 
We try to teach them that it's great if you have the talent and the drive to compete for a podium position, but it's just as great to compete just for the sake of doing it in your own best time, and enjoying the event no matter where you may come.

Recently, Alex was doing a team mountain bike race: we drove past his team on the way in to the finish line, and their team was lying in second position - Alex was cycling at the back of his team as we drove past, when one of our daughters piped up: ‘Awe, daddy's at the back, that's yukkie...but I still love him!’
This just goes to show: there is a natural instinct in all of us to not like the idea of being at the back, and we generally place a lot of value on the idea of being at the front of the pack!

We think our children are thriving because we try not to succumb to these pressures, and they know that we love them unconditionally.
Our main aim is for them to live balanced lives - focussing equally on their spiritual, physical and mental development. 
Denise Stuart, 42 and sons Brandon (18) and Austen (15)from Bloemfontein
I had an interesting chat to my son Brandon recently, specifically on the pressure of school level sport (Free State trials etc.).  He told me that he gave up squash due to the pressure that the coaches placed on him to perform better each tournament regardless of the enjoyment of the sport.  He felt that pressure superseded the enjoyment from a very early age – everyone was performing and so he just fell in line.  Eventually he found that he was so anxious before a game that he felt sick.  Everyone ‘supporting’ him on the side lines, both parents and coaches, felt like pressure.  Very soon he had reached his peak in the sport and felt like a failure as he was no longer moving up the ladder.  He says he contemplated trying another sport in school but peers had already ‘classed’ him as a mediocre sportsman (i.e. no number 1 in Free Sate) and thus he felt it far easier to become involved in a sport outside the school circle – no one knew who he was and he could start with a clean slate. 
He says the pressure was absent and the enjoyment factor was there again.  The fact that the wakeboarding and wakeskating involved a more relaxed, less competitive, environment meant that he could perform better and achieve goals quicker without feeling like a failure to parents, peers and coaches.  He also mentioned that the pressure at squash negatively affected his impression of himself in general.  Boys very much respect each other based on the sporting achievements (a testosterone thing I guess) and once he felt like a failure at squash he felt withdrawn in all respects.  The wakeboarding has given him the confidence again to attempt sporting activities.
My other son is just 15 years old, and yet some of his friends are already driving around the neighbourhood.  The pressure to perform also seems to make our children precocious in ways that arte not only unhealthy, but dangerous.  Where a friend Austen’s age volunteers to pick him up, I put my foot down and will rather drive him to where he wants to be myself.
A final point:  In my stepson’s matric class, a student who got 3 distinctions won an Engineering bursary, whilst my stepson managed 6 distinctions.  Obviously one has to learn that sometimes even when you win, life is nevertheless not fair, and hard work is not always rewarded.  If all you are is invested in winning one particular thing, and you don’t win, you have so much more to lose. 
Maria Bekker (41) and Hennie (19) from Bloemfontein
My son Hennie has just returned from his matric holiday. The pressure he is experiencing is the responsibility of going out and building his future and the uncertainty.
As a parent I find it stressful as I want my child to choose something which he will be good in and be happy with and of course there is always financial responsibility which is scary.
About the sense of value: I have always made sure that he knows how much I value him and that he should also value and respect himself. I’ve taught him about his identity as a Christian and together with that to try and grow as a decent human being and not only rest on what I tell him.  I think one outlet for young men in particular – perhaps actually a rejection of societies pressures, is their interest in heavy metal bands, and computer games.  My son enjoys both and is part of a group of friends with similar interests
I do think your loved one’s encouragement has a huge influence and that’s what I try to do.
Gerald Roberts (59) and Gerald Jnr (31) Kate (29) and Tessa (29) from Bloemfontein
We have raised three children. Gareth, our son is 17 months older than Kate and her twin sister, Tessa.  The children share a close bond and are very supportive of each other and we have tried our best to discourage sibling rivalry by focussing on their individual abilities, talents and strengths.  Our approach as parents has been to encourage our children to pursue their dreams and fulfil their potential in which ever field they have chosen and not to settle for mediocrity.
 Gareth has always been strong academically and is now in the final stages of completing his PhD in Economics at Wits. He is also fond of sport and ran his first Comrades Marathon this year.  Tessa like Kate has enjoyed her sport and has provincial and national colours at school level for hockey.  She also competed at university level but after qualifying as a Chartered Management Accountant, decided to concentrate on a career in finance. 
After competing a B Com degree Kate decided to pursue her passion for triathlon as a professional on the international circuit and has competed at two Olympic Games. 
While growing up we tried our best to instil the values of healthy competition and accepting triumph and defeat graciously. All have experienced disappointments and setbacks in their careers and we have tried to support and teach them that there is no disgrace in losing or failing as long as they have tried their best.  One important aspect we need to highlight is that we allowed our children to decide on what they wanted to do, but once they made the decision, we insisted that they see it through to the end with all the ensuing challenges.  Another and perhaps the most important thing we have tried to emphasise in our home is the need for a positive attitude – ‘your attitude determines your altitude in life
 There have been many examples where our children have faced disappointment and failure, but our underlining approach has always been to try and identify the positive and what lessons can be learnt from those experiences.  A most recent example that we can mention is Kate's race in the women’s triathlon at the London Olympics.  Kate had trained very hard and was mentally and physically in the shape of her life.  After a very good start to the race in the swim and initial bike leg, she unfortunately crashed into a barrier after trying to avoid a bunch of triathletes who had slipped on the wet road and gone down.  Instead of throwing in the towel as some of the athletes did and retire from the race, she got up and continued racing and managed a 22nd position.  Kate as well as the family were bitterly disappointed but we dealt with it as a family by agreeing that it had been no fault of hers and in our view by finishing the race she’d shown true grit.  This illustrates that it is not just about winning but how you deal with setbacks and disappointments. She on her own has decided to continue to pursue her triathlon career and set herself new goals and not retire as she intended too.  We as her parents will continue to give her our love and support.
Natalie Bezuidenhout and Ethan from Cape Town
My boy Ethan is still in playschool.  Has he experienced any of this ‘winning-at-all-costs’ pressure? It’s gradually become apparent to me that Ethan is exposed to these pressures on an almost daily basis. The biggest culprits? The media and…me.
Take for example, the feedback I give to Ethan on his school report, how I praise him for the areas he has done well in, and how my typical response to areas that he has not fared as well in is usually to map out how we are going to go about improving on those areas. Because he needs to have a perfect report card, right? A perfect report card is an indication of success for both my child and me as an attentive, involved parent, is it not?
You’d be hard pressed to find a (positive) news article on an athlete or a sports team who have a history of just been mediocre. Or a movie that makes a hero out of an ordinary person who appears not to have accomplished anything amazing, but who has managed to find happiness, contentment and fulfilment in an apparently ordinary life. Let’s face it, Ben 10 wouldn’t have reached his cult status if he couldn’t transform himself into a superhero and save the world (the ultimate superhero task); nor would Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent.
When very few of us are destined to excel at everything we do, or even just excel at one thing in our lives, why do we continue to place this unnecessary pressure on ourselves and our children? Why can’t a person’s level of happiness and contentment be a measure of their success in life instead of how much wealth they have accumulated or how many accolades they have achieved?
A Johannesburg-based child psychiatrist Dr. Brendan Belsham (see sidebar) emphasises that parents should value who their children are, rather than what they achieve. In Little Miss Sunshine this sentiment comes through clearly and simply when the mom says, ‘Just let Olive be Olive.’ The reality is that often the worst pressures to perform come from within the family.
The importance of winning though, is that shy children grow in confidence and it gives children a sense of belonging (whether to a school, a team, a circle of friends).  Another very interesting aspect is sibling rivalry.  In South Africa plenty of our own homegrown stars are a pair of siblings that have consistently motivated, inspired and encouraged one another.  Like Albie and Morne Morkel, Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, Oscar and Herman Chalupsky.  Overseas there are the famous tennis-playing Williams sisters, and Britain’s Brownlee brothers (a pair of triathletes who live together, train together, and took Olympic gold and bronze in the same event – triathlon – in London this year).
But losing, and knowing how to lose is even more important.  It teaches us after all how to deal with life.  How do we respond to disappointments?  Do we lose our tempers, make excuses, give up or avoid making an effort altogether?  These responses soon turn into habits that stay with us for the rest of our lives.  This is why it’s crucial that children model themselves on the right heroes, and parents can help with this.  
In the end it is not the behaviour computer games, and movies, and TV cause, but the spontaneous participation – the living life they prevent – that is the most damaging.  Parents can play a role in simply getting their children outside, or away from digital screens of any kind, and encourage them to play.  Play, after all is, is rehearsal for life.  Fun encourages expanding on those experiences, and deeper experience leads to expertise.
People like Richard Branson and Charlize Theron provide ample evidence of the confidence that a loving family (or one’s mom) can provide to turn children into society's champions, rather than the greedy, shallow, self involved flash in the pan achievers that society asks us to be.  When children compete for the fun of it, they enjoy it and when encouragement leads to results, that’s a bonus.  Just let your Olive be Olive.
Pressured to Win: 3 Key Insights into where it all comes from…

1. The pressures and anxieties are real: In private practice one certainly sees evidence of the ‘winning-at-all-costs’ phenomenon. Although the vast majority of children are referred for genuine, impairing conditions, there are some who are not clinically in need of treatment but are responding to the pressure to perform, be it from their parents, their schools or even themselves. Often there is a clear agenda, such as the need to gain entrance to a particular university degree. There are many children who are highly anxious and demoralized due to the pressures they are feeling to perform, and parents are often in denial about their children’s capabilities,

2. Parents play a huge role in either reinforcing or mitigating pressure from society: The reasons for our performance-driven society are complex and difficult to understand. But as far as children are concerned, at least preadolescent children, there is little doubt that they take on their parents’ value systems. If money, status and appearance are the priorities for mom and dad, then they will be for the child as well. This happens whether or not the parents openly profess these values to their children. In fact, what parents say about these matters is overshadowed by how they behave in day to day life. And children are more astute than we think in observing these traits in their parents. Children learn more from what we do than what we say, a phenomenon referred to as modelling. Furthermore, it is a curious fact that the unresolved issues we have as parents will also be our children’s issues if we don’t address them in ourselves. I suppose I should temper the above by stating that each child comes into the world with their own innate, inborn temperament, which will also influence their competitiveness and will to win.

3. Competition is healthy but must be balanced: There is a distinction between healthy competitiveness and a will to win on the one hand, and an unhealthy drive to succeed on the other. It hinges on the underlying motive in the heart of the child and/or parents. If the parents’ priority for their child is the development of healthy character, then most issues sort themselves out. Good stewardship of your God-given gifts means that you will do your best and try to win, but whatever the outcome, the secure child will rest in the knowledge that they are unconditionally loved by their parents, because the parents value who they are as a person more than what they have achieved. Again, it’s less about what the parents say than how they live and behave. Fear plays a big role here. Unhealthy competitiveness often stems from a fear of losing or not meeting expectations, but if the parents have instilled in the child, from a very early age, that who you are is more important than outside appearances, then fear loses its power. Paradoxically, this actually optimizes the child’s performance, as they are then free to do their best whatever the outcome.
*Provided by Johannesburg based child psychiatrist Dr Brendan Belsham and author of What’s the fuss about ADHD.

12 Practical Tips for Healthy Competition in Families*

1. Don’t just let children win. Learning the balance between winning and losing is the goal. Any time winning is fixed before the game is played, it invalidates the teaching of competition.
2. Don’t feel too sorry for children when they lose.
3. Don’t pay a lot of attention to children’s fears of trying, but let them join in when they’re ready.
4. Don’t let children’s avoidance of competition keep the rest of the family from having fun. Watching you play will tempt them to join in.
5. Humor and laughter go a long way in easing tensions.
6. When children and parents compete between themselves, adults or older siblings should give younger a children a handicap to promote fairness and inclusivity.
7. The family that surrounds itself with family fun and laughter is more likely to motivate its children to learn, work, and accomplish.
8. Explain to your children first place is only temporary. If they’re first on one level, they’ll soon be competing on a higher level with others who were also first.
9. Even while your children are winning, they can learn to notice, admire, and communicate their admiration to other performers. They’ll feel better about jealousy as they admire others.
10. Don’t let them ‘put all their eggs in one basket.’ If they’re best at academics, sports or music can be the place to learn resilience. If they’re best at sports, math or music teams may help to decrease feelings of pressure.
11. Balance competitive activities with non competitive interests for relaxation and fun.
12. Parents can teach their children to be resilient. Children can learn to creatively view their failures and losses as learning experiences. When failure occurs, they can identify the problems, remedy the deficiencies, reset their goals, and grow from their experiences. As coping strategies, they can laugh at their errors, determine to work harder, and/or redesign their achievement goals. Most important, they can see themselves as falling short of a goal, not falling short as people.

*Dr. Sylvia Rimm child psychologist and director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, USA.

 Note: an abbreviated version of this text was published in YOUR FAMILY magazine.

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