Running along the grass in the blistering heat wearing a flimsy playsuit and slip-on shoes, I wasn’t exactly dressed for winning the mum’s race.
But it was my five-year-old son’s first sports day, and despite the fact I abhorred taking part when I was a child, I was doing it for my boy. I was trying to show him showing him it’s the taking part that matters.
Predictably, I didn’t win. In fact, I came second to last. When the winning trio were awarded with their celebratory stickers, I joined in the applause and didn’t give my loss a second thought.
Until I was reunited with my son after the races finished and found myself confronted with a forlorn face, etched with disappointment.
‘Why didn’t you win?’ he asked indignantly. ‘And Daddy didn’t win either.’
I tried to explain it’s the taking part that counts
It was true. Neither myself nor my husband had won our mum and dad obstacle races (hubby would have done if it had been a straight sprint apparently!). in my son’s eyes we had failed, and the utter disappointment was undeniable.
I tried to explain it’s the taking part that counts – it was just a bit of fun and it didn’t matter. But nothing I said seemed to lessen the blow.
Indeed, it wasn’t forgotten for a good few days. My husband pragmatically pointed out it wasn’t the end of the world and he needed to deal with it.
And while the rational side of me knew he’d get over it, part of me struggled to know what to do or say to help him accept it.
Fortunately, this was possibly the biggest disappointment in my son’s life so far. Until England’s defeat last night to Croatia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-final.
These setbacks prompted me to think about whether as a society we wrap our children up in cotton wool too much nowadays.
Whether the age in which we live produces molly-coddled kids who rarely come across ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ because it’s always the taking part that counts.
There’s no denying disappointment is a fact of life, no matter what your age, generation or social status. If it’s not missing out on a sports day win, it’s not making the school sports team, not getting a desired toy or your country getting beaten in the semi-final of the World Cup.
So do our kids just need to man (or woman) up and accept the inevitable disappointments that life brings, as we all had to do growing up? Will each setback damage them for life?
And how can we parents teach our children to cope with the inevitable letdowns that life will bring?
We also place value on winning rather than losing
Expert Katerina Georgiou, a counsellor who works both in a GP’s surgery and private practice, says: “I’ve noticed a tendency for adults to want to ‘take away’ or ‘stop’ difficult feelings in their children, such as sadness, anger and disappointment, as a form of protection.
“They might place high value on feelings such as happiness, and judge things like anger as undesirable, or sadness as weak. We also place value on winning rather than losing. The result is that a child absorbs this message even if it’s not explicitly stated. However, as human beings we are complex and have a full spectrum of feelings, both light and dark, and loss is a part of life that every single one of us has to experience. The question is what we do with it.
“What tends to happen from young is we absorb the message that certain feelings are not ok, and rather than processing them we learn to bury them. Or, worse, we project these out onto others and judge them for it to protect ourselves. We might then become competitive or resentful rather than learning to focus on ourselves and our own journey. This creates a hotbed for insecurity and the catastrophic impact of that shouldn’t be dismissed – low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, eating disorders etc.”
And Georgiou is keen to point out there are definitely long-term, grave implications of this: “Male suicide rates among the middle-aged working classes, for example, are known to be worryingly high. We know part of this comes out a culture of ‘men don’t cry’, compounded by a host of other factors including sparse access to emotional support, poor coping strategies, unemployment and loss (divorce, losing access to children etc).”
So, rather than viewing setbacks as a negative, Katerina Georgiou asserts: “I really believe it’s an important part of a child’s development to be encouraged to recognise, process and manage complex, difficult emotions in a productive, containing way so they are emotionally prepared for life ahead.”
She refers to parents teaching our children helpful coping techniques to manage difficult emotions, such as ‘naming the feeling, talking it through, walking, listening to music, cooking or finding an activity that works to soothe’.
“If a parent can help a child accept the feeling, while modelling productive behaviour to deal with that feeling, the child can learn to develop an emotional literacy and become confident with expressing it in a healthy way,” says Georgiou.
Not shaming the child is also important, as is the language parents.
“If a child is taught the value of losing as an opportunity to appreciate the good things in life, this can encourage a greater tolerance of difficult feelings,” she suggests.
England tried their best but were just not good enough
There’s no denying that whatever generation, family, and socio-economic group we are born into, disappointment will continue to be a fact of life.
It is, however, somewhat reassuring to know that while it’s not nice having to deal with a forlorn child having a meltdown, trying to accept and learn from this disappointment actually makes them stronger, more resilient and well-rounded individuals.
It makes me realise my maternal tendency to bend over backwards to avoid any disappointment in my children’s lives isn’t necessary, and can actually be detrimental to their characters developing.
It’s reassuring to know there’s no harm in letting our children lose at Hungry Hippos or Snap now and again, and that seeing their mum miss out on a sports day triumph won’t damage them for life.
Which is just as well given England’s performance in the semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. England tried their best but were just not good enough.