As I sat last Friday, trying to get some things done at Red Horse Cafe, the closest thing I have to an office, I looked up to see a cherub-faced blonde waving at me. She blew me a kiss. Nice. Her mother looked on, beaming.
"Wow," I said, "adorable."
The mom smiled. "She's very friendly..."
I laughed. "Although I'm sure I'm special..."
I gave gold stars to the little doll, who turned out to be about 19 months old, and to her mother for her good child-rearing, and to the woman sitting next to them, who had been chatting with them.
The mom smiled as she looked down at the star on her finger. "It's funny about the gold star," she said, "because she is so proud of herself when she does something, anything, like climb the stairs. I wasn't that proud of myself when I graduated college!" she laughed.
I shook my head sadly. "See, ideally, I think we start out that way, proud of ourselves, and then, only over time, as adults, we learn not to feel too proud, that it sounds too braggy to be proud of yourself...it's so challenging."
I was thinking of my own kids, how hard it is to know what to say when they say they are the best at anything. Even if it is true, even if they win a game or a race or get chosen first for something, I want them to understand the position that puts other people in, how it might feel to be on the losing end. I want to teach them not to be insensitive and pompous but, at the same time, I want them to always feel proud of themselves, to feel good about their abilities and who they are in general. It is a quandary.
We are, by our very nature, comparitive and competitive. If we are great, for some reason, it seems always to be at the expense of someone else's greatness. I, for one, never understand why and, yet, I look back at my junior high yearbook and cringe that I am not on one of the pages that proclaims people Best Dressed, Funniest, Most Studious, etc. It cheers me that I won the overall Citizenship award at graduation, for which I still have my medal, but then I have to laugh at myself. What if I'd won nothing? What then? What if my kids win nothing? What if they are not the best? And, what if they are?
Little League baseball season started this past weekend and, with it, a flurry of frenetic activity, always threatened by the chance of rain. I hate team sports. I was not a good sport about walking in the Little League Parade down 7th Ave. My kids felt my lack of enthusiasm and matched it, exceeded it even with their own boredom and annoyance. We ditched out early to have brunch at Dizzy's Diner. It's not that I don't like to participate in things, to teach my kids that, sometimes, they have to be part of the pack. It's just that I have always balked at the idea of winners and losers, at 'us' versus 'them.' I cringe at the idea that, at the end of the game, someone is going to walk away feeling the least bit bad, even though they tried, maybe even tried their best. I hated playing soccer games even though I loved the sport. If my team won, I felt bad for the other team, if my team lost, I felt bad for my teammates, who, mostly, took it more seriously than I did and would be in a bad mood for hours if we didn't walk away the victors.
The baseball parade always reminds me, as I walk in the crush of "team spirit," that something is amiss in the way we do things, in the competitiveness with which we approach most things. Instead of playing together for mutual benefit, instead of being able to allow everyone to feel proud, we are always picking who can be proud, who is allowed, based on a set of criteria someone arbitrarily chooses. I guess that is why I have been accused, recently, of being a communist. And I guess I am, though my husband, Geordie, points out the problem with that when he quotes the Simpsons smartly about something that should work and doesn't: "In theory, communism works."
Inherently I understand that capitalism, which doesn't work too well in theory, certainly not in mine, actually does seem to work the best in practice because, sad to say, comparing and competing is in our very nature. It is survival of the fittest and, much as I fight against it, I know it is true. I suppose it is just something we have to mitigate in ourselves and in our children, to find a way to be proud but not to make others pay for our pride.
My kids play with this concept a lot. Take, for example, a little song that Oscar was repeating last night, composed by his brother Eli along with a little choreographed sashay:
"I'm awesome, I'm awesome, I'm awesome, uh huh... I'm awesome, I'm awesome, I'm awesome, uh huh. I'm awesome, I'm awesome, I'm awesome, uh huh...'Cause you're not."
Gulp. No one got a gold star for that one. As a reminder of how they should be thinking, there is a great piece of art on the wall of my kids' room, a print by local Park Slope painter Jonathan Blum, that I picked up when I first moved to the neighborhood at a street fair. Even though I had only one child then, the concept was solid and, now, it is a perfect reminder for two boys in one room. Featuring two dogs, both wearing crowns, it says: "Can't We Both Be Kings?" If only.