As a child, my family moved around a lot. I'd called four places home before my first day of kindergarten. I attended three different elementary schools and three different middle schools. My parents, themselves, had grown up in a small, tightly-knit farming community in which everyone knew everyone. To this day, they are still in touch with some of their childhood friends. In contrast, I'm in touch with none of mine. In fact, I can't even remember the names of some of the kids I once called "best friend."
I sometimes wonder if I've missed out on something, especially when my wife gets together with her lifelong besties, but the experience of being the "new kid" is so much a part of who I am that I can't really imagine what it would be like to share such a long history with anyone other than family members. My greatest life lesson, I think, was how to make new friends wherever I go.
For this I credit my mother. Mom was determined that we would have friends wherever we went. If the new neighbors didn't show up on the front porch with casseroles, she would make her own casseroles and show up on theirs. She went out of her way to connect with other families with kids. As we got older, she signed us up for team sports wherever we moved, not as a way to learn the dubious lessons of competition, but rather so that we would have the opportunity to make friends.
Not everyone enjoys sports, but fortunately we did, and throughout my childhood, my social life tended to emerge not through school, but rather through baseball, soccer, football, basketball, and swimming. Of course, there was competition when another team would come to play, but the core of the experience was daily practice where we built relationships with one another around the cooperation of teamwork. There was never any expectation that we would go on to become professional athletes, nor were we graded or tested. The idea was to have fun with friends.
Some time ago, before I began my journey as an educator, in the spirit of paying it forward, I volunteered to coach what is called a "select" baseball team comprised of middle schoolers only to find that youth sports have changed in horrible ways. These kids and their parents already had their eyes on the big leagues, or missing that, at least college scholarships. It was an unpleasant experience for me, but even more so for the kids who, frankly, demonstrated very little joy, and even less friendship. This wasn't the baseball I grew up knowing. When I tried to lighten things up, parents would pull me aside to let me know that they appreciated the sentiment, but really, they didn't want their child to "miss the opportunity," so, you know, knuckle down. Ugh.
One of the foundations upon which our educational system is built is the myth that we live in a "competitive society" so we must get the kids ready for that. Now, I've never been a stock market day trader, nor have I had the misfortune of being part of a corporate hierarchy. I've never been a professional athlete or a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race. Indeed, the only time that I found myself in genuine, ongoing competition with my fellow humans was during my time in school and only then when I began to understand that I was being judged (graded, tested) in comparison to my classmates. But outside of school, I've found that competition beyond the occasional friendly board game, is not a meaningful part of my life.
Mister Rogers once said, "You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are."
Competition only gives us, at best, a superficial sense of who we are. It teaches us that if we aren't a winner then we're a loser. But even more harmful is competition's lesson that our fellow humans are impediments, stepping stones, and rivals. It makes "things" of them, it dehumanizes them, and it ultimately prevents and perverts our relationships. What my mother knew was that the only way one can ever acquire that deep sense of self is through relationships. It's only through other people that we discover the key to our deeper sense of self.
For the most part, those of us who work with young children understand what my mother understood: relationships are the foundation for any life worth living. When we observe children at play, we see that they are driven, not to competition, but rather to cooperation and teamwork. That is where they find joy. When competition emerges, it always does so as both a threat to their games as well as their relationships. In these cases, when we allow the children to solve their own problems, the unpleasantly competitive games either comes to an end as children exercise their freedom to quit, or, impressively, they scramble to remove the prospect of winners and losers, restoring the cooperative balance to their game.
This, not competition, is the reality I've discovered everywhere I've gone in life. It's inhuman systems, like conventional schooling, that create the illusion that competition is everywhere. When it's just us humans playing together, the only thing that matters are our relationships, built through cooperation and teamwork. And through that our deep sense of self emerges as the only guide we will ever need to make choices that will bring us joy.
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