By the time I got home from the race, the sweat had dried, but my hair was still damp under the ponytail. As soon as I walked in the door, my elementary-aged daughters started demanding answers.
“Did you win mommy? Did you win the Great Race?”
Anyone who has seen me run would understand why I laughed at the question. I am not a runner and even calling me a jogger is stretching it. A 13-minute, knock-kneed, run-walk mile is my best time. But rather than explain just how my pathetic pigeon-toed shuffle could never win anything, I held my head high and in my own kitchen I announced myself a winner.
“You bet I won,” I told the girls, who immediately demanded to see the trophy, ribbon or great prize I had surely brought home. In their world, trophies are de rigueur. By age seven, their shelves were lined with trophies they earned for simply signing up for a sports team.
“I didn’t get a trophy because I didn’t come in first place,” I explained.
“So you didn’t win?”
“Yes, I did.” By now the kids were completely confused. In their elementary minds, I couldn’t be a winner if I didn’t come in first or get a prize. “I’m a winner,” I explained, “because I did it. I started the race, tried my best, and finished it even though I knew I wouldn’t get first place. That makes me a winner.”
My daughters looked puzzled for a minute and then my younger child spoke the eternal question on the lips of all children.
“Can I have a snack?”
My inspired attempt at good parenting was falling on deaf ears. If I didn’t have a trophy or something cool, I might as well go back to just being mom.
A year or so later, my older daughter was pestering me to sign her up for a swimming meet in some far off land. Swimming is one of the good lifetime sports and the weekday practices are flexible. However, the meets are hell. If you haven’t attended a swim meet as a parent, know that it involves driving an hour (or more) to the pool, finding a way to entertain yourself and your children for seven hours in a hot crowded area and watching your kid(s) participate in a couple of races that last about 60 seconds. That’s eight hours of parent time for 120 seconds of potential kid glory. And that’s if you kid is bad. The good ones finish even faster. I said we weren’t going.
“But, mo-o-om,” my then ten-year old daughter whined, “they give big trophies.”
The answer became a definite no.
But, this is what childhood has become—a trophy life—traveling teams and Olympic dreams for the elementary school set. The quest for excellence starts as soon as the baby exits the womb—in sports, arts, language or academia. Infants can take music or movement classes with mom or dad and watch Baby Einstein videos in their free time. Introductory classes start around age three and by ten, kids are practicing or playing five days a week. As my kids enter adolescence, they are expected to be superstars at something.
Last year my oldest daughter started talking about trying gymnastics. Everyone worried. After all, she had developed into a strong swimmer and had quite a trophy collection. She might have been even better if we weren’t such slacker parents. The good parents were paying for private coaching and managed to get their kids to practice more than a mere two or three days a week.
Because she couldn’t do two sports and get her homework done, she had to choose. And so at the ripe age of twelve, she switched from swimming to gymnastics.
“But the Olympic stars are fourteen!” another parent said, as if the Olympics were our goal. A few days later, I found myself repeating those silly words, telling my daughter she was getting a late start and it would be hard to compete, that she might not win competitions or get trophies, and that she’d likely be practicing with seven year olds.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I just want to learn how to fly through the air and do flips and stuff. If I don’t do it now, when will I learn? I can’t do it when I’m old.”
So she switched to gymnastics, but it didn't last long. She can now do a round-off back handspring and front and back flips on the backyard trampoline, none of which ever earned her a trophy. Today, she's back at swimming. Each meet she races against the clock, looking to beat her own best time. Sometimes she gets a trophy, sometimes not. I can only hope that after every race she calls herself a winner.