Thursday, July 26, 2007

Is there such a thing as too much competition?

After this past week, I would say yes.

Some kids are competitive by nature. It carries over into adulthood and gets those same competitors into many successes and loads of scrapes, some of which could well spell their downfall. Just check some Behind The Music stories if you have no clue what I mean. Competition in sports and business can go right into competition in terms of imbibing alcohol, snorting or swallowing a drug of choice, who holds the best and most inventive dinner parties, who has done the best kitchen renovations to their home, who has the purebred pet that has the best bloodlines and most awards, who has the highest achieving offspring...someone stop me before I make loads of people sick, including myself.

Now, in scheduling a bunch of competitive events for children aged 5-12, how much is too much? One day? Two? Five? All at once, or scattered around? Details, details...

All I have to compare this year's color war with is last year's, and last year, I think the right decision was made about the length of the competition. Two and a half days of kids playing games, of counselor lip-synch competitions, of songs and cheers for each team, of banners and color-coordinated t-shirts. It was just the right length.

How do I know this year ain't the same?

"Ms. Leigh, when can I go back with your group?" some five year olds assigned to color war groups that aren't my own are asking me nearly every day this past week. The answer to the question is, "Next week. I promise."

In a way, it's a compliment. What I'm learning about kids that are that young, however, is that routine is also important in their lives. For the past six weeks, they have been jelling with their age group and have been getting in the groove of participating with a familiar bunch of kids, being led by the same bunch of counselors, going to the same activities at the same times. This week has thrown 'em all for a loop, and most of the counselors I've talked to are feeling it, too. Different schedules + different groups = stress.

Throw in required participation for campers of all ages over five straight days, and inevitable comments along these lines emerge from the older campers: "We'd probably be getting more points if we didn't have the younger campers involved."

Is this where the seeds of social Darwinism were sown, in childhood competitions? Is it really such a wonderful and marvelous thing to push ones so young out of their comfort zones so soon?

And those are just the questions I have about the kids that are taking all of this chaos pretty well.

The ones that are really driving me, and some of the other counselors, up the wall are the kids who take the competition waaay too seriously. "Man, why'd they judge us to have the best flamingo imitations? Why couldn't we have done the best gorilla imitations?" I heard from a camper in my group. Serious can be funny. But then there's the John McEnroe-fit-kind of serious.

"I didn't get out!" a six year old argues with a judge at dodgeball. Points taken off for the six year old's outburst backfire, and the kid runs off to sulk in a corner.

"We never get points for being first!" a frustrated six-year-old cries out when we go through an entire event without being picked for a first-place finish (there are points given for other finishes). "The judges like the other counselors better! We need to bribe them!"

"My voice is gone from the screaming!" others complain. "We'll never win for loudest cheers!"

Really, I could handle the exhaustion of scream games, relay races, three massive bruises sustained on one of my legs, coordinating Beatles costumes (I was the walrus - uh, John. My other team counselors were Paul, George, and Ringo. We came in second, even after I sang a rip-roaring version of "Twist and Shout". Pppphhhpphht. Oh, well.), and yellow frickin' submarines if it weren't for these wet blankets disguised as children. However, I am getting fantastic insight into how competition in heavy doses creates Lord of the Flies.

As for how well kids are taking anything less than first place in competitions, I think of what the counselor for the six year olds asked his group when he tried to teach them something about good sportsmanship. "You play video games, right?"


"Well, don't you lose in them sometimes?"

"No. We know how to make ourselves invincible."

The kids know all the shortcuts and extra powers granted to them through their knowledge of games on their X-Boxes, their Nintendos, their Wiis, their Segas, even their PCs. Life doesn't have those kinds of shortcuts, though, and the kids are a tad too quick to blame outside forces when they don't perform as they expect themselves to. Ugh. This ain't right.

Make no mistake. Many, many video games out there kick ass and are loads of fun. What I'm arguing for is balance. Greater supervision on the part of the parental units, maybe, with regards to managing the sportsmanship angle. Get the kids outta the house more. Show 'em Rudy. I don't know. I wish I had the ultimate answers for these kids.

I want 'em to be more resilient. To learn from their mistakes. Roll with some punches. Be kids. Channel that frustration.

Hell, I want myself to be more damn resilient.

I'll be ecstatic when this week is over. Pray for us all, y'all.


Update, 7-27: I got hold of this li'l article by way of the Babble Strollerderby blogs. Playing with your kids is unnatural, parents. It is also smacking of classism. If you feel guilty for not enjoying playing with your kids, relax. It's just not natural (heh...what is when it comes to parenting these days?) - and it's possibly some kinda wacked-out conspiracy to differentiate upper-class families from lower-class families. Gee, can you tell that my brain gets completely numbed out by trying to keep up with the little guy's imaginary penguin friends?

On the other hand, this is also presenting a possible reason for me not to work in the same place where my son is attending school - and an especially good reason for me not to be directly involved in teaching any class or camp group of his. Not that I object to the latter reason.

Oh, and Pistolette has highly valid parent concerns as well. Just 'cause you're having a child doesn't mean you've stopped being yourself, people.


Pistolette said...

I think kids definitely need competition skills, but like anything, if used in excess it can be an addiction. Moderation, moderation... How do you teach a child to know when it's okay to put your entire being into something competitive, or when it's okay to just back away from the game show circus? I think it's a tough one since I don't know the answer myself.

Heh, I like Strollerderby. Their snarky delivery totally suckers me in.

Leigh C. said...

I love Strollerderby, myself. Some Babble articles are good, too.

saintseester said...

My sister is teaching my kids to fend for themselves in the jungle - by pushing them out of the way as she heads to be first to hunt a geocache. Too funny. And, she has my 11 year old smack talking about how we are all going down in the next round of killer bunnies (he annihilated the adults - he completely decimated our bunnies, thus claiming all the carrots for himself).

Of course, who knows what kind of damage my uber-seester is doing to his little brain.

Varg said...

Redesign! Yea!

Professor Zero said...

Hmmm, unnatural to play with kids, I wonder, does this get me off the hook for playing hunting games with the cat? I know one is supposed to pull pieces of paper on strings that they can chase, but I have never found this interesting for very long ... now I might be justified in saying no, I am hurting their psyches! ;-)

Leigh C. said...

Pop psych hypotheses and theories can only go so far. I still have an ongoing beef about ghost stories being a form of child abuse. Up to a certain age, probably so. Otherwise, I believe some of this is justification for squelching objectionable elements of child care in order to avoid possible liabilities and lawsuits. Over time, however, I think we are looking at more and more things that will be forbidden with potential psyche damage as a justification. Not that it's bad - in the case of bullying, I think there are some justifiable crackdowns on that kind of thing - it's just ultimately unquantifiable, and I don't see a way of making it a viable statistic right now.

You, too, have made this point, Professor - people are not one situation fits all.