Olympics: The Spirit of Competition

Oddly enough, after two weeks the 2012 Summer Olympics are not getting stale at our house.  There seems to be a never-ending series of Olympic Moments that stalls the reality train for yet another event that somehow turns into a television afternoon.  And these aren’t just those Chariots of Fire flashes of exalted victory and weeping defeat that the media loves so much.  They’re revelations of what young people are capable of.  What constitutes dedication and excellence?  What brings these human qualities together in the same place at the same time and drives athletic performance forward?  It’s easy to dismiss the Olympics as the gargantuan circus it has become — and I’ve done it a number of times — but that’s just the glitzy bag they’re dressed in.  There’s more to them than that.

The Olympic mottoCitius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger) is actually a secret code that unlocks a hidden room in our human DNA — a tidy little place where the competitive genes are stored.  Yes, that’s right: as much as contemporary North Americans wish to deny it, we are genetically programmed to be competitive.

Human beings are social animals, not unlike a troop of chimpanzees or a herd of elephants.  We travel in packs and, therefore, have a burning need to know just exactly where we fit into the hierarchy of the group.  It’s Mother Nature’s way of making certain our species survives, by insuring that the strongest genes get passed along.  Once we establish that primeval, it’s not such a big step to London 2012.  Those young people running, jumping and lifting are doing what comes naturally.  Crudely put, they are just answering a call of nature.

Here in the 21st century, there is a strange idea that we should limit a child’s exposure to competition as if it were radon (Remember that stuff?)  In fact, the “everybody gets a rainbow” philosophy has pretty much taken over in North America.  This is just bad.  It’s like punishing owls for sleeping all day.  Take a look at any schoolyard.  Those little kids figure out who the Alpha dog is pretty quickly — even though they’ve been told repeatedly they’re not supposed to do that.  They know who runs the fastest, who has the coolest backpack or who knows all the words to “Call Me Maybe.”  They don’t have to keep score.  It all comes perfectly naturally to them.  This is because, from the day we’re born until the gophers start delivering our mail, we are constantly going head to head with something.  If you don’t believe me, ask any parent about the incredible duel they had with their two-year-old.  That kid is measuring his abilities, honing his skills, detecting and tailoring his talent — so he can deal with an unforgiving world someday.  In essence, he’s competing with the world that mom and dad have created to keep him safe!  They don’t call it “The Terrible Twos” for nothing.

Instead of trying to sacrifice 5,000 generations of the human condition on the altar of some Flavour-Of-The-Week self-esteem Dr. Phil nonsense, we should be encouraging competition.  Striving for excellence is not wrong, even if you get left behind.  The Olympics clearly shows that.  Forget about the glare of the klieg lights and the stabbing “how do you feel?” microphones, and take a look at that poor bugger who’s bringing up the rear.  They never stop.  They finish — even when they know they haven’t got a hope of ever touching an Olympic medal.  And when it’s all over and they go home, they aren’t “devastated” human beings, questioning their self-worth.  They’re standing tall, three axe handles across the shoulders, proud of their accomplishment because they hung in there with the best.  Not only that, but they’ll probably start training all over again, just for another chance to try.

The Olympics might be a five ring circus.  So be it.  However, we need to bring some of that spirit of healthy competition home to our children — because, these days, when every kid gets a gold medal, everybody (including the kids) knows damn well it doesn’t mean anything.

Shouting in Frustration about Back-to-School Stress!

The problem with writing blogs is you can’t shout.  All the words on the page get the same weight; none of them stand up before God and everybody, throw their heads back and holler, “What the hell is going on here?”  So, all you can do is delicately present what you know to be true and hope at least one person pays attention.  It’s frustrating work, but somebody’s got to do it.  Either that or we’re all going to end up sliding down some cosmic bunny hole and the Red Queen’ll be calling the shots.  This is one of those times when something is so messed up I just wish I could scream from this page.

What I am about to tell you is absolutely true.  No sane person could possibly make any of this up.

Recently, Angus Reid, those annoying people who always phone exactly at dinner time, conducted a poll.   They wanted to know — and many people told them — if kids were getting anxious about going back to school.  Easy question, simple answer: “My kid’s eight.  How hard can this be?”  Not so fast!  Apparently, 42% of children are not only anxious about it, they’re stressed right out.  Forty two percent!  That’s nearly half!  And that’s the national average!  Where I live, the percentage goes up to 47!  I’m running out of exclamation marks!!   Can you believe this?  I have no idea about the methodology of the poll — who responded, what the questions were etc.  However, I do know one thing, without even looking: Angus Reid didn’t talk to one single kid.  If they had, that 42% would have dropped to practically nothing – 4% max.   And that’s what makes this poll so scary.

Here’s what’s actually going on.  Angus Reid talked to parents and nationwide, 42% of those people who answered the online survey have no business having children.  They’re unfit parents.  Either that or they’re so ego-blasted on 80s entitlement that they don’t realize those munchkins who show up for breakfast every morning are their responsibility — they’re not just there to make adult life miserable.  Regardless, somebody should call social services immediately because these parents are not doing their job.  Let me explain.

First of all, ordinary kids do not come by stress naturally – especially in North America.  They just don’t.  Yes, I’m sure there’s anecdotal evidence to the contrary.  There’s probably some little person out there somewhere whose dad is a crack addict and whose mom’s doing covert ops in Afghanistan or something, but that’s not the norm, and that’s my whole point.  Stress comes from extraordinary circumstances.  Normal, everyday life does not cause stress.  If it did, we’d all be renting condos in the Valley of the Loons.  Besides (and I’m pretty sure about this, also) kids haven’t bought into the extra curriculars of life yet — things like mortgages, car payments, a rat-faced, inconsiderate boss or an idiot spouse who answers surveys.  They only get stuff like that from parents who are contagious.  These are adults who haven’t made the simple connection that kids can’t fully handle a lot of information yet.  They haven’t figured out there are ways of sharing life’s little difficulties with a nine-year-old — without freaking him out.  Unfortunately, most inhabitants of the 21st century think stress is a natural condition.  So, when it comes to their children, they treat it like an accomplishment that should be passed along.  Stress is taught in the home like sharing your toys or tying your shoes.  And when it shows its ugly little head, it’s rewarded with lots of close personal parental attention.

Next, kids go to school.  That’s normal.  It’s what they do, and they do it for years.  It’s like the cycle of the seasons to primitive tribes.  They measure their little lives by it.  Every September is a rite of passage – another rung in the ladder to adulthood.  I know people who haven’t been near a school in a generation, but the rhythm of their childhood is so ingrained that they still think of Labour Day as a kind of Everyman’s New Year.  And here’s another newsflash: despite what they’ve been conditioned to tell you, kids love it.  Why?  ‘Cause kids are sponges.  They soak up everything around them and process it.  Everything is new and exciting.  Electricity and magic carry the same weight with them because they don’t know the difference yet.  Every piece of knowledge is a mighty discovery.    And there’s no better place to quench that thirst than at school.  It’s the one place whose sole purpose is to explore the world and get in touch with all kinds of new stuff.  This isn’t just confined to the classroom, either; the socialization of recess or lunchtime friendships are just as important.  Children keep this sense of wonder for years — until it’s kicked out of them by inept and preoccupied adults.  Find a kid who says, “Been there; done that.” and you’re doing something wrong.

Finally, kids are tough little beasts.  They’re made to withstand the harsh realities of growing up.  Here’s how it goes: take away an adult’s most cherished dream and you run the risk of destroying their ego, their joy, their purpose — for life.  On the other hand, tell a kid that Santa Claus is…well… kind of a spiritual thing, and it might set them back for a day or two but pretty soon they’re on to the next adventure.  Kids face the Santa Claus type discovery over and over, year after year, and the vast majority of them shake it off and keep on moving.

Parents who see signs of back-to-school anxiety in their kids are looking in the wrong places.  Either that or they’ve already conditioned their children to be timid and needy.  Kids naturally look forward to a new school year just because it is new: it’s exciting, it’s more and different and part of that bigger life they’re growing into.  Parents who don’t understand this and foster it are raising a generation of young people made of spun sugar, so breakable that every bump in their future mundane lives is going to be a setback, an injury or an occasion for angst and foreboding.  These parents are stealing the wonder from innocent lives and they ought be ashamed.  I’d like to grab that 42% by the collective collar, get right in their face and shout, “Stop it!” but I can’t.  I just wish I could.