We just got home from a great weekend in St. Louis, Missouri, where 23 of our students participated in the annual World Kuk Sool Association’s Midwest Tournament. While it’s a pretty long drive from St. Paul, Minnesota, this is the closest tournament that our students can participate in, and we’re always grateful for the enthusiasm and excitement from the students and families who choose to make the trek to participate in competition.
I have the best job at this tournament, at least for someone of my temperament and skill set: I emcee the event and get to announce all the names of all the winners. I love doing it — I enjoy trying to pronounce every name correctly, and I get to be the voice of congratulations to hundreds of people.
I’m also, by default, one of the public faces of the governing body of the competition (which should in no way imply that I am part of the governing body — all the credit for these amazing events goes to Kuk Sa Nim, Sa Mo Nim, the WKSA Headquarters masters, and the hosts, Masters Jack and Lee Harvey from Kuk Sool Won of St. Louis). I’m friendly and accessible, sitting there at the head table, sometimes not doing anything particularly important when I’m between announcements. So it’s understandable that I get identified as a go-to person for complaints. (While I’m on the subject, I should also point out how few complaints there really are. Out of nearly 500 competitors, we heard fewer than 10 complaints — that’s kind of amazing when you think about how high emotions run during a competitive event.)
What are the complaints about? They usually boil down to this: my son/daughter/granddaughter/grandson/beloved relative or friend did not medal/get the score I believe they deserved and I/he/she am/are now very upset. Sometimes this is how we find and correct mistakes, like when a scorekeeper mixes up Boy A Jones with Boy B Jones, giving the wrong score to the wrong Jones kid. But it is usually an expression of a parent or grandparent’s desire to protect a child from feeling hurt or disappointed or sad, and I totally get that desire.
But while I understand and sympathize with that desire, I’d like to suggest an alternative: we can change the narrative. When the focus of our concern is on protecting a child from hurt feelings, we are buying into the narrative that says that this experience causes hurt feelings. We agree with and accept the idea that winning feels great and losing sucks, because we value winning and avoid losing, which unfortunately provides a tacit acceptance of valuing winners and avoiding losers. No wonder we want to protect our children from this — we’re creating a narrative in which they have less value when they do not win at a competitive event.
Now I am not suggesting that you, the parent of a child engaged in competition, actually value your child less when he or she loses. I know you don’t. But the behavior of complaining, whether you actually engage in it or simply do it in your head or only in the privacy of the car trip home, indicates that you buy into the narrative of win=good and lose=bad. And I guarantee, as a parent, as a teacher, as someone who lives and works every day engaged in the study of interpersonal relationships, that if you buy into that narrative, even a little bit, your child believes it and feels it to be true. (To be fair, when we get stupid-excited about our child’s wins, which I am totally guilty of, we are also buying into that narrative.)
What if the narrative was win=good and lose=better? Losing is an incredibly valuable experience, and one we should seek out for children (and ourselves), rather than avoid. Losing, especially being able to lose surrounded by supportive fellow-competitors, caring judges, and adoring family members, is a great opportunity to learn. Learn what greatness looks like, and you’ve got a better chance at striving for it. Learn what unfairness feels like, and you’ve got a chance to show compassion to people experiencing it. Learn that you’re not always going to be first, best, or even in the top 6, and you’ve got the opportunity to decide you’re going to work your ass off to be better or that you’re going to be a happy, humble person whose self-love is based on the radical acceptance of who you are.
Parents, love your kids. Advocate for their health and safety. Protect them from the rare but real harms out there. But, please, let them fail. Let them lose. Let them learn.