Wednesday, September 1


Yesterday at lunch my mother-in-law (who is the main caregiver to my late sister-in-law's three children) mentioned that my 4-years-and-6-months old niece cannot recognize all of the letters in the alphabet, though my 4-years-and-9-days old daughter can. And has been able to since she was just barely three.
My mother-in-law, whom we shall call Nana, remarked that she said something to my niece along the lines of, "You don't know all of your letters, but Ladybug does and she is younger than you. Don't you want to know all of you letters like Ladybug?"
I thought it was an odd thing to say to my niece.
link here

Before I go any further, let me say this is not an indictment of Nana. She devotes her time, talents, energy, money... her life... to her grandchildren. All ten of them. She has been charged with the almost-impossible task of raising three of her grandchildren as if they were her children. She does a great job at it, too.

However, I wasn't sure if comparing my niece to Ladybug was the best way to get my niece fired up to learn the alphabet. And I said so. Because that's what I do. I say things.
"Well, I don't want Niece to be competing with Ladybug."
My sister-in-law immediately said that some competition is good for kids. Keeps them on their game. Encourages them to do their best. That sort of thing. (It will be noted here that while I love my sister-in-law more than words, I patently refuse to play any sort of game with her. Ever. I've heard too many growing-up-with-her stories from my husband, and have witness too many crazypants contests between her and her husband to ever step a single toe into that cagefight. She. always. wins.)

Except, in my mind, there is a difference in competition and motivation. The very word competition suggests there are teams, a winner and a loser, and a prize to be fought for. Motivation, on the other hand, is more of an internal influence that drives one towards a goal.

To me, it sounded too much like "Ladybug is smart and you are not." Though that is something Nana would never in a million years say, let alone think. But that is how it came across. To me.

I don't want my kids to compete with each other, or with their (very close in age, proximity, and relationship) cousins. I don't want adult-given labels stuck to their foreheads already. He's the smart one. She's the pretty one. He's the athletic one. She's the funny one.

I want them each to take the time to become who they want to be, not who their aunt, or teacher, or father, or grandparent says they are.

My husband and I try to encourage each of our kids, even The Baby, to find out what they love, and do to all things well. Even things that don't come easily to them, even things they don't like. Yes, we tell The Boy his is brilliant and The Girl that she is beautiful, but we also tell The Boy that he is handsome and strong and kind, and The Girl that she is smart and lovely and capable.

I don't mean to infer that competition is bad, or that there is not a lesson to be learned in the classroom or on the playing field or in the workplace. I do think competition is healthy, it does push you to do your best; and trophies, accolades and pay raises are all big incentives. Failure can be a valuable learning tool, if taught correctly. What I am concerned about is pitting one family member against another, one child versus the other, and assuming someone will come out on top.

The Prince of Wales on a racehorse in Brisbane, 1920

Ladybug knows her letters because of her brother. This is the only logical conclusion, because when she was old enough to start learning them, he had already mastered the alphabet and I was dealing with a very demanding infant. It seems almost as if one day my Ladybug came to me and spelled out her ten-letter name perfectly, could pick out all the letters- even out of order, and knew the sound each one of them makes. I can't take much credit there.

It is a goal for us as parents to foster affection, encouragement, and loyalty between our kids, and that extends to our nieces and nephews. Yes, they annoy the fire out of each other sometimes. Yes, they have arguments on a nearly day-by-day basis. But they love each other, and, I hope, they don't feel like they have to compete for our attention and love.

Surely one of them will become the funny one. One will be the bookish one. One will be a standout athlete. One will be overly dramatic.
But those are things I want them to be because that is what they want, not because someone else already shines under that spotlight.


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