Sunday, February 24, 2013

Why Winning Matters

I had 4 younger brothers who all participated in the Cub Scout program.  I remember the Pinewood Derby as something significant, a sort of boy-hood rite of passage.  My brothers labored over their cars, fine tuning the aerodynamic design, getting the paint just right, the wheels spinning smoothly, the weight within milligrams of the perfect 5 ounces.  So when my oldest son was handed his official Pinewood Derby box with that raw block of wood inside, I felt a little intimidated.  How could I make this experience fulfilling enough for him?

When crunch time arrived, and we had to get the car ready, I pulled out the block and started talking about possible shapes and wind resistance and best chances for speed.  Why did it matter so much, he wanted to know?  "Well, if you want to win..." I began to explain, when he retorted, "But winning doesn't matter."

Hmm.  I guess I wasn't too surprised to hear this response from my son who loves gymnastics purely for the fun of it, and has no apparent desire to fine-tune his skills enough to add his name to the trophy collection at the gymnasium where he spends 5 hours a week playing -er- practicing on the pre-team.  In a way, I guess that was how I wanted him to feel.  Not worrying too much about winning is safer.  There's no chance of hurt feelings, and no chance of bloated pride in the case of an actual win.  On the other hand, without a desire to win, I didn't see what would motivate him to put any effort into crafting his car for the race?

Our society has been working hard to eliminate competition from the lives of our children.  I can see a little value in this.  Competition creates inequality when the results are in: someone is the winner and someone is the loser, and many are somewhere in-between.  We don't want our children to feel they are better than someone else, or that someone else is better than them.  We want everyone to feel valuable.  Everyone should be a winner.  So I suppose I can see the logic in eliminating scoreboards, banning the terms "first" "second" and "third place" and teaching children to create or perform purely for the fun of it.

On the other hand, I feel we are doing our children a disservice by not teaching them that competition is a fact of life in our world.  "Survival of the fittest" has been the way of things from the beginning, and I don't think it's going away any time soon.  When they go in for the job interview, the fact stands that the best candidate is going to get the job.  Colleges accept students with the best GPA's.  Any situation where there is a choice to be made, the chooser is going to lean towards the best option, and if you or your offering is the thing being chosen, you must strive to be the best.  That's just the way it is, and for good reason.

The trick is to find a way to teach our children to do their very best, put in their very best effort, use the motivation of possible success to work hard, seek for ways to improve and refine, and ultimately become excellent without allowing that excellence to inflate their ego.  We must also help them to understand the purpose of failure, that it is a springboard for growth, a lesson in humility, and an opportunity to be gracious to those who have bested us.  Simply eliminating competition because it is too complicated to try and teach children how to walk the fine line between greatness and conceit, and humility and despair is the cheap way out.  We should not shy away from such lessons just to spare our children from painful feelings they are bound to encounter later in life, especially if they are unprepared.

I guess that's why the Cub Scouts still hold Pinewood Derbies.  My son didn't win, but I think he had fun.  And seeing the winner's cars and the level of effort that went into them may have inspired him to try a little harder next year.  I hope so.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Serving Closer to Home

One of the traits I admire most is the ability to hear and respond to promptings to serve others.  I stand in awe of the inspiring stories of the friend that showed up at just the right moment to assist in an emergency, or the stranger that offered just the thing, or the person who knew someone needed a call.  I long to be so in tune with the Spirit that no need that I could fulfill goes neglected.  To me, this seems like the ultimate goal of a true disciple of Christ: to become a perfect instrument in his hands.

So, knowing that practice makes perfect, and that you have to earn the trust of the Spirit through responding to it, I set a goal to pray every day for 2 weeks for promptings that I could then follow.  "Alright, here I am, Lord.  Whom do you want me to help today?" I would utter hopefully every morning I remembered to.  Sadly, in the bustle of parenthood (especially with a newborn) I forgot to ask most days, and as the 2 weeks went by, I never noticed a prompting.  I recommitted, I prayed more, I tried to feel something, to hear something.  Who needed me?  I would gaze out the window as I did dishes every morning and try to think whom I could help.  Nothing.  I started to worry that I was just insensitive or too busy or distracted.  Too selfish, perhaps, or unworthy.

Then finally, it occurred to me that the Lord was not going to burden me with extra obligations when I had so many already.  Granted, we are not supposed to wait to serve until we have everything in our own life all squared away and perfect.  But God does know our limitations, and he is not unreasonable in his requests.  I have a 2 month old baby, a 6-year old who is starving for some attention and greater sense of self worth, and a husband with many pressures and demands on him.  I have a toddler who is begging to be toilet trained, a daughter who is in limbo between childhood and adolescence, and a quiet young son who is in danger of getting lost in the shuffle because he is too obliging to speak up for himself.  If the Lord was not currently asking me to serve outside the walls of my own home, then for sure he needed me to do all sorts of service within them.

So my prayers and my goal took a shift.  I started praying every morning that I could be of greater service to my family.  This time, it was easier to remember, and this time I found plenty to do.  I was able to help my husband prepare material for an upcoming presentation.  I helped my 6-year-old catch up on a month's worth of chores, earn his allowance, and finally feel good about himself.  I helped my other son with a fun and engaging homework project that he is proud of.  In between it all, I fed my kids cold cereal most mornings, cooked a few meals, ordered pizza and did mac n' cheese on the other nights, fed my baby, and kept changing 2 sets of diapers.  Nothing momentous.  But I did what I could for those I love the most.  I still want to learn to hear those promptings to go outside my domain and rescue someone besides my own, but if this is all the Lord needs me to do for now, I am content to do it.