We all know that “slow and steady” wins the race. (But does the winning really matter?)

Perhaps it was because we had just experienced the festivities of the half-marathon in our town, but after reading the Tortoise and the Hare for what seemed like the millionth time, its moral seemed to fall a little flat.  Since when does “slow and steady” ever actually win the race?  

Theoretically, I understand that when you take your time, and pay attention to detail, it pays off in the long run. But to win?

Growing up, those who finished first were recognized in public ceremonies and rewarded with things like certificates, trophies, and titles. I was pushed both academically and athletically to always finish on top, and I often did. I rarely had time to think about the “long-run” because it felt like a constant sprint to cram for the next exam or submit the next paper or project. The slow and steady? They were forgotten.

“Fast and Steady”

So, when my 6 year-old pulled a book called Badger’s Race off the shelf of our local used bookshop, part of me thought, “Great.  Another retelling of the same old story.”  Sure enough, Fox sprints out to a quick lead and Badger is left in the dust.  But, in a great twist on the classic tale, instead of taking a nap, Fox presses on to actually WIN the race! Yep, “Fast and steady wins the race!”

I did notice, however, a few key differences between Badger in this book and the ever-steady Tortoise in Aesop’s fable. Tortoise seems to simply plod along in his quest to win the race against Hare: no distractions, no stopping, until he reaches the finish.  Badger’s journey is quite different.  When Fox, in his rush, upsets a mouse’s home, Badger helps to put it back together.  She spends the winter with a stoat (an animal that looks like a ferret) and leaves in springtime, as a great friend. Badger also helps a lamb who falls on the side of a mountain. She is determined to finish the race, but doesn’t “persevere” in a tortoise-sort-of-way, opting instead to stop often for the sake of her new friends. In short, relationship always trumps her desire to win.

At the finishing post, while Fox gloats in his victory, shouting, “I won! I won!” Badger simply responds with a, “Perhaps,” and walks away.  

A new perspective

I asked my daughter what the fox received from winning the race.  She said, “Nothing. Well, he got that he won.”  Precisely.  When the goal is to win, you train to do just that. But oftentimes, that’s all you get. What about Badger? He met new friends, had a warm place to stay for the winter, saw new places, etc.  I asked Camille, “Who won the race?” She smiled.  

The whole definition of victory was flipped on its head.  The “winning”, of course, didn’t matter at all.

As much as we may want to think that competition is a healthy means of motivation in education, research tends to prove otherwise. If you grew up in a primarily competitive environment, this may not be an easy reality to accept. At 18, I ended up with a piece of paper filled with marks that confirmed my brilliance as a student, and loads of trophies to prove my athletic prowess, but what else did I have to show for my hard work? Who (besides me) benefited from my achievements? What did my accolades say about who I was or where I was headed?

Does success=the best?

When the goal is to be the best and you are, there is no better feeling (at least in that moment). But when the goal is to win and you don’t, it’s a different story. Think about the Olympian that has literally been training his entire life for the gold. He “loses” (only one can win) to come home to an utterly ordinary and, all too often, depressing life. When life’s purpose is all about standing on that platform alone and receiving gold, anything less is failure (no matter how slow and steady you have been training along the way). The disturbing reality is that we have brought this exact philosophy into our institutions of learning (and all too often into our homes as well).

Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest says, “In a competitive culture, a child is told that it isn’t enough to be good — he must triumph over others. Success comes to be defined as victory, even though these are really two very different things. Even when the child manages to win, the whole affair, psychologically speaking, becomes a vicious circle: The more he competes, the more he needs to compete to feel good about himself.” 

We have the unique opportunity and freedom as home educators to turn this whole competitive philosophy on its head; to allow the journey itself to teach and shape our children, especially when it comes to relationship.  

An education rooted in relationship

Relationship is an indispensable aspect of learning since so much of our adult life revolves around being able to communicate and collaborate with other people of various backgrounds. When education becomes all about achievement and the people around us are seen as obstacles, competitors, or distractions, it’s no wonder we end up with young people who believe that life is all about them.  

“When children compete, they are less able to take the perspective of others — that is, to see the world from someone else’s point of view. One study demonstrated conclusively that competitive children were less empathetic than others; another study showed that competitive children were less generous.”

Alfie Kohn

A gift to be given away

An important sense of humility is fostered when children recognize that the gifts they have and skills they excel in, are just that- gifts.  Yes, it takes individual effort and determination to grow in those gifts, but ultimately they are to be used for a purpose. That purpose is not to blow by the competition and be recognized as the best, smartest, most athletic, or most beautiful, but to contribute to the lives of others and, if you are a person of faith, to give honor to the giver of those gifts, instead of claiming them as your own.  As we walk with our children in their education journeys, let’s not only affirm the interests and desires that we see in them, but let’s encourage them to keep their eyes up and hearts open to those who might be able to benefit from those gifts along the way. Therein lies the true victory.

Do you agree?  What role should competition have (if any) in the life of your children? Should all children strive toward the same finishing post as their peers? What is lost (if anything) along the way? Leave a comment below!

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