In a game day, my son sits at the kitchen counter eating waffles and reading the sports section. Wearing a T-shirt and boxers, and a look of consternation on his face, John somehow seems older than 10.
"If we could be 3 and 3, or even 2 and 4 on the season - but 0 and 6?" he mutters, disgusted by his soccer team's record. "We stink. We really stink." It's not the moment for a lesson-in-life lecture, and I restrain myself from delivering one.
Where does his competitiveness come from? My husband, Sam, attends every one of John's games, but never coaches from the sidelines. If John complains to him about someone else's poor play or disputes a referee's call, Sam offers only encouragement. As a child, my husband never wanted to play organized sports, and his parents had let him make that choice, comfortably. Our son, however, is drawn to activities in which he excels, and where his accomplishment can be measured, irrefutably.
John has a mother, too: I am driven, and I like it when my work is recognized, though achievement as a triumph over someone else has never been my motivation. But as early as second grade, I figured out that the Robins were better readers than the Sparrows. If we were going to be ranked - well, then, I wanted to be a Robin.
John's competitiveness extends beyond the playing field. He argues with his sister about which movie the family sees, and whether we have pizza or burgers after the show. He sees every decision as victory or defeat.
"Turn off the scoreboard," we gently counsel. And then I wonder. Our advice runs counter to that of the world in which John must make his way. Everyone gets to play recreation-league soccer, but only the top players make the traveling team. A concerned parent tells us he's pulling his child out of the local high school because only 5 percent of its graduating class goes on to the Ivy League.
We live in a culture that measures - one in which ranking high secures, and falling short confines.
Are we misleading our son when we suggest that there are things more important than winning, if not to the world, then to the way he feels about himself? How long will it be before he understands that the benefits of participation far outlast the ego-boost of any single victory? And how can I expect my son to grasp the distinction when I, too, grapple with it whenever I choose differently from what our culture values?