Winning and the “real world”, what are we teaching the children?

There is a common sort of a discourse (story) circulating now. To try to get the gist of it, I will try to remember what a colleague said to me:

“They are saying now that we have let kids down by letting them believe that there are only winners…you know ribbons for participation and all that. In reality someone has to win and someone has to lose. It’s not realistic!”

It was something like that, that she said and this was an intelligent and thoughtful person, besides in her further defence she was probably only making conversation based on what she read in the paper. But she is a parent and a teacher of very young children so I felt I had to debate this- even though she is only one person and I am hearing variations on this everywhere. So I will try to unpack what I think of all that.

Firstly- who is the “we”? And who is the “they”? in this sort of an assumption. It is often fairly young adults saying this, logically they would mean that they are these crappy little marshmallows that can’t deal with losing. I will leave that aside for a moment and return to it. I think there is a psychological trick being played on disappointed young people to turn valid hurts and critiques inward. This is unhealthy.

But I want to say, as a grumpy older woman that I don’t recall this supposed golden age that happened. I grew up being taught very clearly that the “everyone is special” message that adults paid lip service to was something they thought they SHOULD believe in, but not something they really believed in. That is all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others (cf Animal Farm which is somehow on my mind a lot recently). We had races, we had standardised tests, we had lectures from primary school teachers that some people are born leaders and some are born followers and happiness (or success of society) lies in working out which you are and doing that with loyalty.

I am not exaggerating.

And yes they gave is “participation ribbons” in high school but no child ever thought a participation ribbon was worth the same as the winner’s blue ribbon. There were also participation certificates for maths competitions and as a girl in an all girl’s school I was torn between secretly liking the “Distinction” certificate I got one year, but knowing my life was easier and free from bullying when I simply got “Participation” another year and the teachers shook their heads in disappointment but my peers did not need to attack me.

Such was that “golden age”.

In retrospect I think adults did value “participation”, they were trying to tell us to have a go at things even if we weren’t naturally “gifted” at them and I believe that would have been a great message then (if we understood it) and it would be a great message now. Because now more than ever there is the myth of the “gifted” “special” “self-determining” “packaged” individual that we are meant to package our child(ren) to be, but now there is an attempt to raise parental anxiety to make the whole thing competitive, thus creating markets where otherwise there might be resistance.

Yes, I am saying that this talk of “healthy” competition fits with talk of “free markets” and is a neoliberal con job.

So next possible thing you will argue, is that the “golden age” of everybody wins came after my (admittedly ancient history) childhood. Nope. I had a series of little siblings until I was 20 and had my own children so nope if it was a significant time (ie the generation we have been led to believe) I would have noticed it. In fact from before my kids (now the eldest is 21) were born I was starting to hear this idea that completion is “healthy” and we have made them weak by not pitting them against each other. I started copping flack (in a gentle conversational way) at children’s parties because I always believed every player gets a prize. Partly this is because a party is a celebration, a splurge of abundance, something better than the “real world” of work, duty, boredom and disconnection. Partly that but also partly because I don’t buy discourses of the “real world” all that easily.

What do we mean by “real world”? Do we mean the place where our climate is changing because of our greed? That would be worth critiquing to my mind. Do we mean the place where some humans lock other humans away in gaols on hostile islands for the crime of running away from bombs? I think this is getting close to the truth. Accepting the inevitability of “winners and losers” as some sort of a natural law, instead of as a social construct that results from choices people make normalises the cruelty of cutting of welfare from single mothers or the disabled (not everyone can win).

What we are seeing are disillusioned, disengaged young people who feel little hope at the state of the world. Some of them tell us this in negative ways- become escapist, underachieve, are sullen. Arguably some young people have been spoilt in some ways, but this rhetoric of “everyone wins” has not been particularly convincing in a world of NAPLAN  and growing inequality and attempts to make schooling about “choice” (meaning choose to be rich and have a school with books, computers and sports equipment or be poor and don’t have them). Schools need to compete for customers, children need to compete for places in schools and universities. We make the stakes higher and higher with punishments for ending up unemployed (just as the numbers of unemployed are growing) and we say it’s all to do with “standards”.

No. It’s not about standards, we have moved the goal posts. We have made the game harsher and harder and hide behind phrases like “the real world” to avoid confronting out failure to empathise.

The thing is, I work in early childhood and I think of my profession as important, as “real work”. I don’t see myself as part of a production line turning out “consumers” to compete in a “free market”, I believe that the “real world” is always a becoming thing, and whatever my students and I agree to make it is part of what it will become. I thought the same about my own children and I am delighted to see them as thoughtful, generous, complex and capable adults now.

When faced with a system of winners and losers I want to ask with the children- How can we fix this so no one is left out? How can we fix this so we are all winners? I want to question with them what a winner is (are the .1% of people who own 99% of the world’s resources “winners”? Are the people who win jobs from them winners? Is being “freelance” (ie casualised) a form of “winning”? Is working over 40 hours a week winning?) and what a loser is (am I a loser if I think migrants are taking my jobs? am I a loser if I am on minimum wage? is the homeless person who walks past me a loser? Is the low-income person who I think wastes their money a loser?). Winning and losing are constructed by the rules of the game. Children at some point question a game- who makes the rules? Can I change them to benefit myself? Can I change them to make my friend happier? Children as young as one or two (I see at work) create their own games, perhaps adults would be surprised how cooperative and mutually “winnable” games such as “peekaboo” are, or “make a noise and we all laugh”.

But in the adult games of the “real world” who ends up laughing?

Teach the children to decide what sort of a world they want to co-construct, not to accept stinging and unnecessary defeats against their sense of their precious selves. Teach them empathy, rather than the harsher and more passive forms of “resilience” (also known as going numb). Teach them that when you (their first super-heroes) make the rules then everyone does win.

Don’t hide from them that the reason we have “winners” and “losers” is because someone decided to make the rules that way. Don’t fob them off with the inevitability of inequality. Teach them to be creative in finding the win and generous in sharing it.

And let them teach us to re-open our hearts and our borders.

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Starting again

I am going to have another shot at what I was doing, writing some blogs about my professional life and how it intersects with the cultural landscape I live in. Last time I let my anger at a lot of the neoliberalisation (and what that does to the PEOPLE in teaching, the children, parents and teachers) become too much of a driving force until I felt I was incoherent.

I deleted and left it for a while, like a composted field that is not ready for seeds.

Lately I have experienced, read and encountered various patterns that concern me, that I feel I need to speak back to but I feel that it is not pure anger motivating me this time. I want to blend some thoughts that may be helpful to anxious parents together with some critical ideas for teachers to mull over (this is assuming anyone will ever read what I write, but who knows?) I don’t want to make a commitment to this blog because my commitment is already taken by my main blog. So I will write this when I feel the itch to speak out about some trend, idea or “common-sense” and also try to mix that with articulating the answers to questions parents ask- not some sort of perfect “once and for all time” answer but the currently best answer I can come up with as a work in progress, so that here is either a place I can rehearse saying those things or a resource I can refer people to (perhaps).

So it will be part critical, part ideas based, part reflective and largely a place to evolve within myself as the excellent teacher I strive to be rather than the sometimes exhausted or virusy teacher I am day to day.

I will be very careful not to mention in any identifiable way the places and people I work with.