I realized early on that one of my children is inherently competitive. It has very little to do with our parenting style and more to do with being internally driven. Last year, he was particularly competitive when it came to spelling tests. And this sense of competition was less directed towards his classmates, and more directed towards himself. He set a personal goal to get 100% on EVERY spelling test. We thought it was interesting that he was so determined, but paid little attention at first.
Every Monday, he would come home with his list and tape it to the refrigerator. He spent the week reviewing the words and we did lots of little practice tests. And low and behold, he would come home with a 100% every week. He was getting so good at it that his teacher added some additional bonus words that were more difficult. Now don’t get me wrong, my son is no spelling prodigy and he was not the only one getting the bonus words. But he was really enjoying the challenge.
As the year progressed his interest did not wane. In fact, his excitement over his success kept building and one day he asked me if his teacher would consider doing a spelling bee. Thinking that would be a fun culmination and review of all the new words, I approached the teacher with our idea. Considering we have national spelling bees, why not do a mini version in class.
Much to my surprise, our idea was shut down instantly. In fact, she wanted to know WHY I would even want to do such a thing. Didn’t I know how unfair that would be to the kids who were not good spellers? I told her it was my son’s idea and he was really enjoying the challenge of learning all these new words. She, on the other hand, was more concerned about how it would make the other students “feel.” She was worried that the students who didn’t do well would be “hurt.” I was confused. Isn’t that what a spelling bee is…a mini competition? Isn’t that what a debate team is? A competition? Or an academic decathlon? Also a competition. And since when is competition a bad thing? Not all students are competitive on the field; some are more academically inclined to be competitive. Shouldn’t that be a quality we foster, not stifle? Do we worry about the kids on the losing basketball team? Or how about when kids play handball at recess? Someone is bound to lose; do we worry that will “hurt their feelings”? Or do we hope the sting of losing will encourage them to practice more and try harder? And, not everyone plays on the basketball team, so not everyone needs to participate in the spelling bee. I wasn’t looking for a televised event, or even a school wide event. I just thought it could be a fun opportunity for those students who were particularly motivated to spell challenging words to do something exciting. And I certainly wasn’t expecting the winner to get a trophy.
I came home disappointed but I wanted to explore the teacher’s perspective. I asked my son what he thought about the potential students who wouldn’t win (notice I didn’t use the word LOSE. I was trying to be more sensitive to everyone’s feelings). He didn’t even seem fazed; it wasn’t so much about winning for him. He just thought it would be fun. I asked if he thought they would be sad if they lost (or if he lost), and he looked at me as if I was crazy—“it’s not that big of a deal mom, it’s just a spelling bee. It’s not the end of the world.”
And so I wonder if sometimes we need to take our cues from our kids. Do we make a bigger deal of things than is needed? Do we rush to put a Band-Aid on a wound that just needs to be rinsed? Are we afraid to let go of their hands because they may fall down? I think it is time to worry less about protecting them from failing and think more about building character. We should have had the spelling bee and we should let our MomAbility guide us.