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Winning and losing

My son’s class had a banner year last year, as far as winning goes. Their environmental video project won a few big prizes and lots of kudos. Not only did they get on the free stuff train (Disney logo-gear!), but they got articles in the newspaper and money for the classroom. The same year, my son had his first experience in entering but winning nothing in the science fair.

My sons classic towering redwoods photo

One of my son's classic towering redwoods photos

My daughter entered the science fair as well, with a really great project, but we forgot part of it, had to return home to get it, and were late for the judging. She was so flustered, she forgot to show the judge the most interesting part of what she did. The judges’ comments made it clear that they had no idea what her project was actually about, yet she got a respectable third place.

She said she was happy she didn’t win first because she didn’t only want to have blue ribbons!

This year both kids entered the county fair for the first time. My son entered one thing: a really gorgeous and unusual photo he took. I thought he would enter a redwoods classic: the towering redwoods with sunlight coming through them. But his choice of a close-up of a leaf had a mystery and depth unusual for an 11-year-old.

My daughter, ever the big producer, entered three things: An excellent pair of dragon pants she sewed, a vegetable creature made of deformed corn she named “Franken-corn,” and a watercolor of the Monterey Bay with sailboats at sunset.

The results were mixed: My son’s photo got an honorable mention. My daughter’s pants won first place (how could dragon pants not win something?), her vegetable creature won third, and she didn’t get a mention for her watercolor.

My son said he was pleased to get an honorable mention—I think he sensed that his choice was unusual but liked that they had acknowledged his work.

Ever the rationalist, my daughter explained to me that had the judges known that her painting was modeled on Monet, they would have given her a prize. And she immediately perked up at seeing that her best friend from her homeschool program had won first prize for her watercolor mounted directly above my daughter’s.

This is the photo my son entered in the fair.

This is the photo my son entered in the fair.

It’s interesting to me to watch how my two children react so differently to winning and losing. My daughter’s interest in contests is very energetic: she loves to toss things in and see what the judges think, and then she moves on to her next interest, not dwelling too much on results.

My son thinks carefully about his submissions and never wants to do the obvious thing. At the science fair last year, we counted at least five entries about testing hand sanitizer. He was amused by this, but perplexed why any of them would get a prize. Like me, he values the originality of an idea and the intent. It’s hard for him to get judging that doesn’t value the same things. Like me, he sees each of his efforts as an individual to be nurtured. Winning and losing is, necessarily, more personal than it is to my daughter.

I think that contests are great for kids for a variety of reasons:

  • When you do something and throw it in a drawer, it doesn’t achieve the sort of finality and finished quality that it does when you see it hanging in a show or displayed in a hall.
  • When there’s a goal to work toward, kids tend to do a more thorough job.
  • The experience of submitting something and, in the case of the science fair, having to explain it is a much deeper learning experience than just doing it and moving on.

Most importantly, though, winning and losing really are a part of life. And part of raising a child is teaching him or her to be able to understand what losing means, and by extension, what winning really means.

My daughters dragon pants

My daughter's dragon pants

My daughter studies Judo, and her sensei says that one of the most important parts of learning Judo is learning to be completely in yourself. He’s a former champion, yet what he talks about is losing: How everyone will lose at some point, and when you lose, you learn an important thing about winning. That important thing is that your effort is yours and isn’t diminished or canceled out by the winner’s effort. When you know that you did your best, you can have respect and admiration for the opponent who beat you. When you know that you didn’t do your best, you can’t blame your opponent. Instead, you need to question: Why didn’t I do my best? What can I do to improve?

My daughter is about to compete in her first Judo tournament, which should be interesting. She is very, very good at Judo, but there’s probably another 7-year-old out there who’s better, and who knows? They might meet up on a mat this weekend.

My son is starting to contemplate entering various other contests this year, including the science fair. I am sure that what he does will be meaningful and important to him, and despite what the judges decide, he will win. Because if he goes about his other contests as he did his photo, he’s going to look inside himself to find something new and surprising.

In any case, I hope that they both find contests inspiring and meaningful, even when the ribbon isn’t blue.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

One Response

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  1. Suki Wessling says

    And you can read a friend’s take on the same fair here: !

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