In Life There ARE Losers

My daughter Nadjah is overly obsessed with comparisons.

“Mommy? Who crawled the fastest when they were babies?” she often asks.

“I dunno, sweetie.”

“Mommy? Who cried the loudest?”

“I’d have to say Liya,” I generally reply.

“Mommy? Who was the messiest eater? Who pooped the most?”

God if I even care! You were all messy eaters! You’re killing me with these questions!

“Everybody was pretty messy, but Aya was the messiest.”

By this time, my nerves are pretty frazzled. I don’t have a high tolerance for ‘stupid’ questions – but she’s 6, and she’s trying to learn (I assume), so I indulge her more than I generally am apt to.

I thought this behavior was exclusive to our interaction at home, but after contacting Nadjah’s kindergarten teacher to make sure she was on target at school, her reply email gave me pause. Nadjah had previously told me that she was the only one to ‘fail’ at an assignment, and I wanted to see what the problem was.

Thank you for your letter. Nadjah is doing well. She is on level, but she is overly concerned about the other kids. She is not the only one that did not finish her contract. This is a routine we have started this semester. It’s new for everyone and half of the class did not complete all of their work last week (and we had a short week). We encourage them to finish, but most of the work is not graded and there are no consequences if they don’t finish.

‘Overly concerned about the other kids.’ Ugh.

In our society where individualism is so cherished, comparing yourself to other people is generally frowned upon. We’re all encouraged to see ourselves as ‘the best’ or as ‘gifted’, no matter how paltry the effort we put into our day to day task. As a result, America has succeeded in raising a generation of narcissists. At first I was alarmed that Nadjah was spending so much time benchmarking herself against her peers and even her own siblings, until I realized that this is healthy behavior if guided and directly appropriately.

 I am a hugely opposed to this culture of ‘everyone gets a sticker for effort’ we’ve instituted in this country. The first time I saw it in action was at an elementary school basketball game. My friend’s 11 year old son was consistently scoring on the team, so much so that they stopped keeping score so that the other team wouldn’t feel ‘bad’ when they saw that they had been defeated so utterly. Now how is that fair to this little boy who spent hours after school doing drills and training his hardest so that he could play his best for his team? America is obsessed with this notion that failure is going to do irreparable damage to our children’s’ self-esteem; so much so that we don’t even allow them to get into an environment where failure is even possible. On Tuesday night, President Obama talked about ‘winning the future’. How in the world are we going to win the future when our future leaders have no inkling what winning really looks like? American culture today purports we are ‘all winners’, and that’s not the case. Some of us are losers – and if you don’t want to be a loser, you need to train harder, study longer, work faster than the next guy…otherwise China and India are going to out-compete us every time. America has become far too complacent and reliant on its history as the world’s dominant leader, assuming its position as the global leader.  

This notion was hammered home when I was talking to my mother and sister-in-law, both educators.

“Just tell Nadjah that she is no different than everyone else,” my sister-in-law advised. “Everyone is the same. I think there’s a book you can buy for kids called ‘Everyone is the same’ or something like that that talks about it.”

It’s the same kind of speech they used to give us on those NBC after-school specials from the 80s: Great for making you feel good… not so great for preparing you for life.

“Uhh…no,” I disagreed. “Everyone is NOT the same. There are some people who are losers.”

“What?” said my mother-in-law. “That’s not nice, Malaka!”

“It might not be nice, but it’s true.”

And that’s the truth. There are frikkin’ losers in life, and my job is to make sure my kid isn’t one of them – End of story.

  • David S.

    Anyone who has played a competitive sport will tell you that there are times where you win, and still feel a heavily depressed about your individual performance and that of the team, as well as times when you lose and still feel good about it. Because at the end of the day, if you are truly measuring your performance, you aren’t comparing yourself to other people, you are looking at your own potential and asking yourself if you pushed yourself as far as you could, or if you could have gone further. Remember how they used to rank students when we were in school? When I was a kid I used to wonder how I could finish in the top 25% of my class and go home and still get blasted by my parents for a poor performance. After all, look at all those kids I beat. One day, I was dumb enough to actually go to my Dad with that retarded argument, and he simply said “I believe you are capable of doing better, I haven’t seen real effort from you, it’s not about your rank it’s effort I want to see.

    I’m not one of those people who believes that everyone should get a pat on the back and a certificate of participation regardless of how they perform, but I do believe that comparing yourself to other people is highly overrated. If you truly want to be a winner, truly want to push yourself, then the person you need to be in competition with is yourself.

    My team sport of choice is pickup soccer. Often when one team is scoring the other with ease the best player on the winning team will switch sides, to restore the balance between teams. Because if you are winning by a lot it’s more likely to be an indicator that the teams are unbalanced, than any reflection of your own competitiveness. Unless you are being paid to play the sport, the purpose of playing isn’t to win, it’s to push yourself, so I fully understand why they stop keeping score in kids games when one side is dominating because to overly focus on the score in a kids game is to lose sight of why you are there.

    Ironically enough I believe that it’s people who compare themselves to other people that have an obsession with feeling good about themselves. The brown nosing employee who feels good about being the youngest executive at the company is simply using that statistic to keep from thinking about the fact that he had to kiss some major corporate booty to get to where he is. But he will instead choose to dwell on the fact that his car is nicer than his neighbor’s

    At the end of the day, everyone has to ask themself what success truly means and whether it really has anything to do with what the person next to you is doing.

  • Allison

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’m all for helping a child feel better about himself, but that’s not the same as coddling him. I’ve spent a few semesters adjunct teaching at a local community college and it’s so apparent that these kids are failed miserably. There is no accountability, no sense of accomplishment. They honestly think that just showing up is enough. They simply can’t make the connection that their grades are a direct result of their performances. I got so angry in class one day after listening to their tripe about “mean” teachers giving them bad grades. I was floored to have to tell a roomful of 18-21 year olds that, as satisfying as it would be in theory to screw with a student that way, it is ethically wrong. I mean, honestly having to actually say that you can’t show up for class once or twice a month, never do the assignments, fail the tests and expect to have a successful outcome. I felt like crying when I actually saw the light bulbs coming on. So I support you completely. Let her be competitive. Even if she doesn’t quite understand yet what she’s doing. She’ll figure it out and use it to drive herself. Even if she doesn’t win, she’ll do her best.

    • WOW. ‘Mean teachers gave them bad grades.’ That is such a loaded statement! Where is the personal accountability?? No, no – you didn’t EARN a bad grade; You were GIVEN one. And that’s the problem. These people are used to be GIVEN everything.

      Thankfully, they had you to break down life’s realities to them.

  • Yes, such is life!