My son is naturally athletic, gliding his bike over a BMX course and swimming with endless stamina. But when it’s time to sign up for a swim meet — or any competitive event — he says no.
It’s not that he’s not tough; he’s just not competitive. This may be an innate part of his personality, but I wonder: Is my son’s peace-centered education making him too nice to play traditional sports?
My son attends a small Montessori school with the motto, “A community for a peaceful world.” This isn’t just crunchy-granola speak. Children really deliver messages to each other like husband and wife in couples therapy. “I didn’t like it when you pulled my hair,” says Cooper. “Well, I didn’t like it when you wrote on my paper,” replies Lily. “Could we find a solution?” asks the teacher, acting as a mediator.
The great thing about sending your child to a progressive school like this is that he learns for the sake of learning, he “makes space” for other students’ bodies, and he manages his “big emotions.”
We’ve gained a lot in terms of social and emotional intelligence, but what have we given up? Will my son be able to access the good old American spirit of drive and dominance? By taking him out of the punitive schooling system, have we ruined him for competitive activity?
Sports require the kind of behavior we often coach out of children today. The chest-thumping bravado of Lance Armstrong or Richard Sherman wouldn’t win the “best citizenship” award in school; these were not the kids who played well with others.
I cringe when I watch my son on the soccer field. He kicks the ball away instead of driving it down the field. He steps aside (giving “space”) when someone really wants the ball. When there’s a skirmish, feet kicking furiously, he waits at a distance until the ball is free. His favorite position is goalie, where a defensive role is justified.
I noticed the best players on the field had the most vociferous parents, moms and dads who urged their kids to “Get in there!” and “Challenge him!” Had our vanilla approval— saying instead, “I love to watch you play!” and “Looked like you had fun out there!”—encouraged an indifference to actually winning the game?
“I don’t want to lose,” he said after swim camp once. Who can argue with that? He’s not used to judgment—in his school, he doesn’t get grades or take standardized tests. No wonder the thought of first-place winners, scores, and competitive ranking scares him. It’s unfamiliar territory.
A part of me thinks: What’s wrong with being noncompetitive? Has my son, at the tender age of 8, reached what we mean when we talk about mindfulness, or a Zen state–being so immersed in an experience that we do it for it’s own sake, rather than an ego-stroking reward?
And yet, I know how our culture works outside of his sheltered bubble. Once my son dives into ambitious fields, will he be able to keep up? Will he care if he doesn’t? (This is the question I have when people talk about the goal of Zen Buddhism: If you live in the present and accept suffering as part of life, will you stop trying to achieve at all?) What opportunities will my son miss if he politely declines the struggle to win?
Maybe the answer for my son is outsider sports, like BMX biking, skateboarding and parkour, where you compete against only yourself.
Yet I can’t help worrying that without that go-get-’em spirit, he will be left behind in the great race to get into a good college, or a graduate school, or to vie for a top-notch job.
But maybe that’s okay?
Virginia Woodruff founded the website Great Moments in Parenting, where parents share the agony and ecstasy of life with kids. She lives in Austin with her husband and three children.
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