My sister’s three-year-old son was watching Sesame Street yesterday. She doesn’t usually pay super close attention to the show when he’s watching, but a little skit caught her ear when Elmo and another character were in a race, and one of the runners fell, and instead of going on to win the race, Elmo stayed back to help the fallen competitor. Then they busted out into a song about how it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, only that you give your best. The message being that helping a friend makes you a winner too.
Except not really. Kim didn’t take kindly to that message, and made a point of telling my nephew that, yes, it DOES matter if you win or lose. You should want to win and always give your best. She emphasized that there is nothing wrong with wanting to win, and you aren’t necessarily obligated to lose to help someone out. All fair points.
Sesame Street was easily my favorite show at that age, not that there was much to choose from, but what was great about it was that it was geared toward urban kids, and combined amazing creativity, showmanship and music with education. The Sesame Street of my day was a much grittier place, where the world wasn’t perfect. Nowadays Cookie Monster eats celery, Oscar is only mildly grouchy (wouldn’t want anyone to think he’s a bully), and Elmo wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the old street.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this theme being visited on a children’s television show. It’s quite common, in fact. And that got me thinking about the mixed messages kids are bombarded with about competition and winning. Programming geared toward younger children almost always comes at them from the angle that winning isn’t everything, and being a good friend is more important. Then in a few years they’re inundated with “just do it” and “protect this house.” Then the college athletic programs that put financial success and reputation ahead of the well-being of kids. And professional athletes who use performance enhancing drugs to gain the slightest edge. The hottest movie of the spring was The Hunger Games, featuring a competition where the participants fight to the death. And while all of this is going on, NBC runs commercials for the Olympics proclaiming that it doesn’t matter if you win, only that you compete.
So what is it? Do we want to win? Or just show up?
I’m like my sister. You should want to win. Otherwise, why bother? I don’t think winning is the be all, end all, or that athletes should poison their bodies, or that coaches at younger levels should put winning ahead of skill development, or that cheating to win is ever acceptable. But yes, winning is important. Competition is healthy.
Despite all the early subliminal and overt indoctrination brought on by a steady diet of Sesame Street, Backyardigans, Wonder Pets, Yo Gabba Gabba, Little Einsteins, Winnie the Pooh, and Arthur, my kids have managed to develop a taste for competition without me giving them any counter propaganda. It’s likely a genetic thing. To say that my family is competitive is an understatement. My brother and I had arguments on the tennis court that were legendary. He buys a new golf club wondering how long it will last before he gets mad at himself and wraps it around a tree. My dad wouldn’t let us win one game of Crazy Eights, even when we were six years old. My sister created a voo doo doll in the image of a rival team’s evil coach.
So yes, despite the message of “you’re still a winner even if you don’t win,” playing a board game with David as a five-year-old was emotionally and physically exhausting because of his relentless need to win. In the Elmo scenario I don’t think he’d bother to go back to the fallen runner, unless it was to step on him to make certain he was completely incapacitated. Cameron might consider going back to help, but that’s only because he’s a genuinely nice kid. Justin would probably have been the one who pushed the runner down in the first place. And Alex would be the runner who fell, and conned the leader into coming back to help him in a ruse to steal the win from under his feet.
Given that history, I don’t think Kim needs to go there with the “it’s okay to want to win” speech. Her son was born knowing that.
© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2012