Kids need to learn how to lose

May 25, 2012

Remember Field Day?

For most of us, it was a hallowed year-end school tradition, right up there with ice cream socials, and signing yearbooks.

The kids loved it, of course, and looked forward to it every year. 

But not at Burns Park, one of Ann Arbor’s oldest, most desirable and most educated neighborhoods – and occasionally, one of its kookiest.

There is a reason many townies jokingly refer to it as “The Republic of Burns Park.”

The Burns Park PTO might be the most active one in the state. In the late nineties, some parents, led by a social work professor, decided the competitive spirit of Field Day was too much for the kids, and changed “Field Day” to “Friendship Day” – replacing foot races, long jumps and tug-of-wars with games that emphasized cooperation over competition. 

A noble notion, but the kids hated it.

During one event, a cross-section of students from all grades had to walk together on two long boards. The big kids kept yelling at the little ones to lift their left foot, then their right – but the first graders didn’t know which was which. They all fell over, and the first graders burst into tears.

I suspect that’s not exactly what the parents had in mind.

For the students bused in from the less affluent part of town, canceling Field Day really stunk.

All year, they had to compete in class against some of the nation’s most privileged students, where success is publicized in every way imaginable. But on Field Day, many of these students were, for the first time all year, winning the medals.

Well, no more of that, either.

I grant the parents had good intentions, but I’ll also take a wild guess that some of them wanted to spare their kids the specter of not being at the front of their class for the first time. But few parents seemed to object when their kids got gold stars for reading, writing and arithmetic.

In trying to protect some students from finishing last, they not only denied the bused-in kids their day in the sun – quite literally -- they denied their own kids the chance to learn some humility, to realize losing a foot-race is no big deal, and to discover the next morning that the sun still came up, right on time, and they were going to be just fine. 

Instead, we confuse competing with bullying, which schools are rightly focused on eradicating. But the two could not be more different. Competition, properly taught, teaches respect, fair play, and good sportsmanship – the exact opposite of bullying.

Friendship Day lasted only a couple years – the new P.E. teacher has brought a nice balance of the old and the new -- but the effects still linger. A few Burns Park parents and teachers have told me too many kids don’t know how to accept losing – especially the boys.  If they get knocked out playing four-square, they simply yell, “Do over!” and that’s exactly what they get.

As one of my friends said, “My kids need to learn how to lose without me there, or any parent, and get over it.”

If you can’t learn these important lessons on the playground, they won’t be any easier during auditions for the high school play or tryouts for the band.

We are raising a generation of domesticated kittens, then throwing them out into the Serengeti.  We might feel better about it – but in the long run, they won’t.