I’ve just come back from a few days in France with work. It was one of those trips which had been ringed in red in the diary; two thunderous Anglo-French rugby matches with hulking athletes playing for high stakes in ferocious atmospheres. Sport over the channel is special, the mass community buy-in means the occasions are laced with intensity which in turn fires the competitive juices. When the home side and their supporters get going, the stadium rocks and the tremors can be felt on the other side of the city.
Throw in some early summer sunshine, and a couple of bottles of rosé by the port in Toulon once we were all done, and it all made for a pretty good work trip. We mused by the Med about how good life was on weekends like this; about how much we enjoyed front row seats at modern-day Colosseums. One couldn’t help but be in awe as these gladiators smashed seven bells out of each other for two hours, only to hug like long lost brothers on the final whistle. It was a weekend to demonstrate rugby’s code of honour was alive and well: what happens on the field stays on the field. Win with humility and lose with good grace.
Which wasn’t exactly how I’d describe the conduct of my son the following day as I towed him sobbing and shrieking to the side of the road. His sister had overtaken him on her scooter and wouldn’t let him win the race to the playground. I thought of the giants who fight through pain for glory every weekend as I wiped away his snot and summoned up the strength to explain, once again, about good sportsmanship.
‘It’s the taking part that counts’ is our big parental focus at the moment. But my word, it is a lengthy process. We’ve just about got to the point where we can trust our five-year-old to shuffle the cards. It has taken a year of dissuading her from sneaking off to sort out an unbeatable hand before returning to deal out a suitable shambles to everyone else. We’re also in the process of ironing out the constant gloating after these inevitable victories. The continual cries of ‘I’m a winner!’ has goaded even her most placid of grandparents to the brink.
This process of educating one’s children to ‘play nicely’ is not easy. But here’s the thing – and I’m going to hold my hands up at this point – I would much rather have to tone down a child’s competitive instinct than have to install the hardware from scratch. Call it the wiring of natural selection.
As an example, and although it is not exactly in keeping with the festive spirit, I will admit to a small glow of pride watching my son in last year’s nativity play. Not because he managed to face the right direction and bow at the right time but because, when one of the shepherds tried to snatch his mini hoover off him (our lectures on standards of cleanliness are clearly registering more than those on good sportsmanship) my little inn keeper hung in there and took it back. As this electrical appliance fracas broke out in Bethlehem, his mother delivered that helplessly ineffective ‘silent telling off routine’ from across the audience – the one that looks like you’re being electrocuted in short sharp bursts – and yet I couldn’t help but give him a nod of approval at the same time. To me, this was ‘survival of the fittest’ in a microcosm.
Given all the conflicting advice they’re receiving, I pity the children. We are teaching them how to win, to want to win, not to give up but not to mind when they don’t win. We are trying to ignite the fires of competition whilst also spraying an extinguisher around to make sure they don’t get out of control. I find myself regularly saying ‘Don’t! But do a little bit…’ It is non-stop accelerating and braking. Or in my daughter’s case, not braking at all.
Because, while trying to head in four different directions at once, we also have to add in the rules to play by. Neither really works without the other, as our eldest proved at her first sports day. I had actually only just arrived back from a month in Australia covering a great British sporting triumph, but the joy of watching our best rugby players win on the other side of the world was nothing compared to the pride of my daughter’s first 25 yard dash. She tore into the lead (in a field of three) but if you’ve not been told that you can stop once you’ve dipped for the line and broken the finishing tape, then you don’t.
Without this information, my daughter did what any competitive animal in the race for survival would do – and kept running. Through the Year 1 egg and spoon race, over the Year 2 long jump, beyond the Year 3 discus. Past the cake stall, around the picnics, out into the car park, noone could get her to stop. If it wasn’t for the end of the earth, she’d probably still be going. Paula Radcliffe would’ve stood to applaud.
In fact, perhaps professionals like Paula are our best hope in all of this. Our children need sporting idols who do the things we’re all preaching about so they can actually see what ‘good sportsmanship’ looks like. No more mixed messages from me, I’m taking the kids and this life lesson back to the Mediterranean this summer.
And if I’m honest, I could do with a refresher course too. After those four nights away in France, my wife and I ended up sitting down after dinner with a glass of wine and the Scrabble board. Within half an hour the night had descended into swearing, cheating, hair pulling, fighting, biting, gloating, anger (hers) and glory (all mine!). Apparently you could feel the tremors on the other side of London.
Read more of Alex’s musings on his parenting styles here.