Lately, my 5-year-old has been a bit obsessed with ‘coming first’. He has to be the first one to brush his teeth, finish breakfast, press down on the sprinkler heads in the lawn, climb into his car seat and so on. Given that he is competing against his 2-year-old brother, more often than not, he does end up coming first. Thus, I hear him running around loudly proclaiming “I won” several times through the day.
My best friend Google informs me that apparently, this is what 5-6-year-olds do. They are beginning to understand the difference between fast and slow as more than just a theoretical concept. They are figuring out their skills and trying to place themselves amongst their peers.
From the leisurely machan of parenthood, I watch this frenzy sometimes with bemusement and sometimes with exasperation. I want my son to, perhaps a bit naively, step back and enjoy things without feeling the need to win every single time. So I find myself reminding him that it is not as important to finish breakfast first, as it is to enjoy it and let it make you strong. It is not as important to brush first, as it is to make sure his teeth are clean. There are also times that I am just a hassled parent trying to get the immediate task done. I am guilty of throwing a challenge every now and then to my sons, “Let’s see who runs to the door first. Let’s see who puts their shoes on first.” I make sure I give them both ‘Hi fives’ and ‘good jobs’ and ‘hugs’ so I hope that exonerates me a little bit.
My messages are mixed because truth is, I am a bit torn on where I stand on this. I realize competition is inevitable these days. I have seen high schoolers fret about not being the best in class when they are giving solo piano recitals, choreographing entire plays, swimming competitively and getting straight As. In fact, I see children as young as 6 or 7 stretching themselves to new levels. They are learning piano, playing chess, excelling at table tennis while also well, learning to read and write. When we were growing up it was ok to want to excel in academics, but everything else was, well, just ‘extra’. Now it feels like there is nothing that is extra. Everything counts. Everything is graded and every step you take counts towards your ultimate goal of getting into that prized ivy league college.
It makes me think if everyone just wanted to come first what happens to the ones that come last. Is there only one person destined to be truly happy in a competition? So I did an exercise in nostalgia. I looked back at the times that I was truly happy doing something. When was I truly happy? Before, during, after?
I see myself once again on the stage in a community hall singing a song, in college participating in a poetry contest, in a line seeing my name on the list of students accepted to the university of my choice. As I look back at the few instances, I can’t say I wasn’t happy about winning. It did feel great. But as I look back I can attest that it is also a very temporary feeling. What happens after is the interesting part.
After coming first in the Grade 1, I didn’t come first in a class again, but I grew to love studying and competing. The joy of learning something new for me today doesn’t need any validation by grades. After winning that poetry contest, I didn’t win anything major in college again, but writing became an integral part of who I am. A casual comment by someone who might have enjoyed my essay or story gives me an equal high today. And even though I never won anything competitive in dance, I am truly happy when I am performing a piece.
If you think back to a truly happy moment doing something, it was the moment you were so engrossed in the sport, game, song or dance that all you remember was just being in focus and giving it your 100%. Coming first happens to be a great way of getting there, but the important thing is to get there. And this is where, I believe, we have to make friends with practice, repetition, and patience.
Competition is good, It keeps you on the edge, pushes you to learn new skills and excel. But sometimes it is just important to be. It is important to know when to compete and when not to. There are times you want to push yourself and then there are times when you need to kick back and just enjoy just being where you are. Sometimes you do things just to connect, build a community. Sometimes it is about improving yourself. Sometimes it is about just spending a good day doing something you like.
A few days back I was coming back with a medal for finishing a half marathon. Several runners had already come in – some winning in their categories, some breaking PRs. They took posed, took pictures and collected their medals. After a seemingly very long time, I came in – exhausted and exhilarated. My son rushed to welcome me and somewhat sadly asked me, “Why were you so slow, did you come last?” I said, “Yes, pretty much. And it so much fun!”
First, middle or last, the important thing is to just enjoy things for what they are. This is the message I would like to give my kids.