Competition

Lately it seems like every game that our 10-year-old grandson plays with his 7-year-old sister is some kind of competition. He, bing older, is a frequent winner in these contests. She finds the situation to be frustrating, but will quickly engage him in another competition. The emotions can run high in these competitions, and their parents and grandparents regularly feel the urge to intervene. “Why does everything have to be a competition?” we ask. Occasionally we suggest that the distance between the kitchen and the living room is simply too small for an all out running race and that some games simply work better outdoors even though there is snow and cold outside.

I’m sure that chid psychologists and other experts would say that a certain amount of sibling rivalry is completely normal and that we shouldn’t be too concerned about the behavior. I’m pretty sure that they would also point out the ways in which we members of older generations contribute to the competition. After all, the parents of these children gave them a ping pong table for Christmas. The grandparents gave them a magnetic dart board. We frequently encourage playing games and gentle competitions.

Win or lose, there is a lot that can be learned from competition. By playing with the children and supervising their competitions, we can insist on fairness and discourage cheating. Children can learn right and wrong from the games they play. There is a reason why we use the word “loss” in connection with games. There is genuine grief in not being the winner. Learning to lose is, in part, learning about how to deal with grief. Learning to deal with small griefs is part of preparing for larger griefs which are a part of every life.

The competitors may not realize it yet, but their lives are about to get even more complex. In about six weeks they will have a new brother or sister, bringing the total of children in the family to four. That means, in coming years, longer waits to use the bathroom, a bit less private space in the family home, and a lot of other changes. I know. There were seven children in my family of origin. We never had all seven living in our home at once, because of the differences in our ages, but there were always plenty of kids. I’m number four and the last two were adopted and came into our lives together. My younger brother went from being the baby to having two little brothers in one event. I went from having one little brother to having three.

Today is one of the days that I remember the competition between the children in our family because it is our father’s birthday. When you are one of seven children and have a very limited budget, selecting a gift for your father is a real challenge. Add to that the simple fact that our father’s birthday was only three days after Christmas, another huge gift-giving challenge, and the race was on. The one gift that always showed up at every occasion for giving gifts to our father was orange slice candy. He seemed to really love the candy and the first thing he did when the gift was opened was pass them around, so we each got a piece. The problem with the orange slice candy is that we somehow knew that one package was sufficient for any occasion. Therefore it was always one of our older sisters, who seemed to also be better financed, who got to the store and purchased the candy before us. I think that I only was the one to get the package of candy one time in all of the years of birthdays, Christmases and father’s days celebrated in our home. If you weren’t the first kid to buy the present for dad, your choices were limited and the competition to find a suitable gift was on. I learned to keep a secret in those days, because not only did I want to surprise my father, I also didn’t want to share my ideas with my brothers because if I had a good idea one of them was likely to go out and purchase the gift before I could figure out how to scrape together the funds. We only had three days to pull off the birthday celebration, and although our mother was sensitive to our financial crunch, normal household chores were not items for which we were paid. Earning a bit of extra money usually involved doing chores for the neighbors or working at our dad’s shop. And payday for work at the shop was the end of the month, so we wouldn’t have the money in time for his birthday on the 28th. I rarely had funds left over after Christmas. I had a lot of siblings for whom I was expected to provide presents. Sometimes I could convince one of my sisters or brothers to go into a partnership for a gift, but that rarely worked out. Father’s Day, in the summer, was so much easier. Fishing gear was always in order and some lures and flies are not all that expensive. Besides Father’s Day is usually right after my birthday, when I seemed to have a few more coins in my bank.

Somehow we emerged from our childhood without major scars despite all of the competitions of growing up. I gained some valuable skills in the process. Having been well trained to wait for the bathroom, to never look inside a woman’s purse (and don’t you ever forget it!), and to wait until all of the dishes on the table had been passed before eating your first bite have all been skills that have benefitted me in my adult years. Thinking creatively and planning ahead for special occasions also has been an asset in my life. I’ve never regretted being a child of a large family.

And, when I am a bit frustrated with the contestant competition between our grandchildren, I remember not only how we competed as children in our growing up years, but also how intensely loyal we have been to each other over a lifetime. More important than who wins a particular game is that these children learn to be friends with each other and grow into adults who care about each other. On that score, I think things are going pretty well. They will have a lot of stories in common that they can tell and laugh about for years to come.