Monday, August 3, 2015

Staying in My Own Lane

Last week I had to bribe my son to swim backstroke. He hates it and as a result, he'd refused to do it since the beginning of this year’s swim season. With the prospect of money on the table, he was willing to give it one last try. 

Watching him race, I could see how much he'd improved, but he was still dead last in his heat. Though he finished strong, he got out of the pool hanging his head. He'd taken 14 seconds off his backstroke, which is remarkable, but in that moment all he cared about was the fact that he'd come in last. Had he been in a different heat that night, he might've won or come in third. In either of those cases, he would've felt pride in the accomplishment of getting so much better. Yet there he was, humiliated, hating a moment that should've been cause for celebration.

How did we get here? How did we land in this spot where (to quote the immortal sage Ricky Bobby) “If you’re not first, you’re last”?  

My wonderful community, with its excellent schools and resources, often feels like a very competitive place. Birthday parties, travel teams, awards, accolades, test scores, "gifted" labels... Achievements and acquisitions to position ourselves and our children to the best advantage in an ongoing contest that everyone participates in, yet no really talks about.

Clearly, I’m as guilty of perpetuating this nonsense as anyone. I mean, I bribed my kid to swim backstroke. I still don’t know why I did it. I suspect it’s because the whole suburban hamster wheel is liberally greased with fear. If you don't compete, you fall behind. That's why it's scary, because it's not me who'll fall behind - it's my kids. It's the same fear that started with moms pushing strollers, comparing APGAR scores and which infant milestones had already been hit, while I quietly panicked about our lack of tummy time. 

I’d like to think I’m above it all, that I can disconnect that which bothers me emotionally with what I know intellectually to be bullshit. I know that I need to ignore all the noise and just stay in my own lane.

When kids are learning to swim competitively, they're often admonished to “stay in their lane”. This is meant to correct the very natural tendency of looking around during a race to see how you’re doing. It almost always hurts your performance. If you find yourself ahead of the pack, the inclination is to relax as you head into the finish, losing momentum. If you’re far behind, it may suck the motivation required to push yourself hard enough to win.

Every so often it will have the opposite effect. A swimmer will look up, see that they’re in the mix and double their effort. It may even help them go fast enough to win, which is great but also when it becomes a habit. The problem is that if you always take a second to look at the other lanes - you will always lose that second. In swimming, seconds count. 

Too often I allow other people to be my reference point for how I’m doing. Why then, should it be different for my children? We're culturally and digitally predisposed to check in on what others doing, all the time. I look (or click) around and see how other people are swimming in their respective lanes and occasionally, it makes me feel good. More often it makes me feel something else, and I allow that to diminish my own experiences and discount my accomplishments. 

I find this whole thing to be frustrating because I actually believe that competition and comparison are good and healthy things, when done right. In fact, I would argue that it’s difficult to measure your progress without using some external benchmarks. To ignore them entirely is also to ignore what is going on around you, and that’s generally a pretty bad idea. 

Last week I competed in a parent relay (freestyle). It was both terrifying and incredibly fun. It wasn’t until the race was over that I realized I didn't know what the outcome was. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look around, I was too busy kicking and not breathing. 

Maybe if you’re fully engaged in what you’re doing, staying in your own lane is easy. The culture of constantly sharing and comparing ourselves is akin to craning our necks around during a race - it slows us down and distracts us from our purpose. There’s also evidence that doing so in the context of our children is damaging to them

It turns out my relay team lost and, as it’s anchor, I was the very last swimmer to reach the wall. It bothers me not at all that I was slow compared to the others and that, by all objective measures, I am terrible at swimming. Last year, I lacked the gumption to put on my bathing suit and swim in front of 500 people. I’m faster now than I was in June.

I am better than I was, and I consider that a win. 

(c) Mommyland Blogs 2013-2015

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  1. Thank you for this. It is so hard to watch our kids start to compare themselves to their friends (especially if they're "behind" or just as much if they're the ones ahead and are too boastful), but then I look around and see that we're still doing it as adults. I love the reminder to stay in our own lanes. I needed this!

  2. This post makes me so sad. I really do blame technology and the need to not hurt someones feelings if they don't get a trophy at the end of the season for this whole thing. People are constantly on social media sites and see what other people do and think "that" they have to be as good if not better than the other. I was always taught to do my best and strive for improvement in anything that I do and 'if" I don't do so good it is OK. It won't be the end of the world. We as parents need to teach our children that if they aren't good at something that it is OK and will not be the end of the world instead of teaching them that they have to be the best at everything. They are KIDS and I say let them be kids. Keep that (for lack of better term) crap away let them have fun instead of being so serious all the time. Think of the children that do not get to be on swim team or soccer team or volley ball team and have responsibilities that no child should have or face. There are children out there right now who are sick, abused and are not getting to have a childhood and teaching our children that they have to be the "best" will only set them up for failure in the future.

  3. I live in the same area you do (hi, neighbor!) and I know exactly what you're talking about - it's a terror for trying to raise children and stay sane, and keep them sane. You are dead on with so much of this! But I have to (hopefully gently) point out one thing you have wrong: "gifted" isn't an accolade for being smart, or an achievement, or the result of how or where you raise your kid. It's something that is in a person's actual neurological wiring: it’s not What They Do, it’s Who They Are.

    While it can show up in a person's academic abilities, it also includes asynchronous development, emotional intensities and over-excitabilities, crushing perfectionism and anxiety, and lots of other things that aren't "good" in the kind of competitive atmosphere we experience in our area. Straight A's come easy to some gifted kids, but for others school is nearly impossible, and lots of gifted kids quit or fail out because people, even teachers, don’t understand. So if (when) you encounter parents who talk about their kid (or other kids) being "gifted" like it's a trophy, keep an eye out for those kids – they may need your advice to Stay In Your Lane even more than others!

  4. I remember hearing a quote, but I don't know the attribution: "Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat." I try so hard not to let the suburban uberparent mentality affect the way I define success for my kids, or more importantly, how they define success for themselves. I would much rather have kids who learned from their failures than kids who were never given the opportunity to fail. I also don't want my kids to feel like they have to succeed for me instead of for themselves. But it's difficult sometimes. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Great article! I also live nearby, in the city, and I totally get it. I struggled with the sour looks when I explained to other moms that my son would be attending our neighborhood school because it's convenient - we can walk there - and also a pretty decent school. Holy Moses, the commutes some of these folks are willing to do to get their kids to the "BEST" schools! I really tried not to second guess the decision that was best for our WHOLE family when it's a constant conversation from the time the poor tykes are born. Then my daughter was diagnosed with a genetic condition that often has developmental delays...and it's so, so hard not to check the lists of milestones and compare her to her peers. She's doing great, actually - a daily reminder that I need to chill out. Staying in your lane is tough work. Thanks for the reminder :)

  6. I found myself thinking about this off and on this morning. I have a child that is not a stellar student, probably will sit in the middle, grade-wise, through high school. Being in an environment where kids compete for everything from friends, to grades to positions on sports teams, it has really taken a toll on her self esteem. Ultimately, we needed to hire on a tutor the help her out. Her grades were absolutely terrible and she stopped accepting help from us at home. It bled over into her behavior at home. She felt like a failure. After time with a tutor (which is still going on) her grades improved and the well constructed wall started to come down. She needed someone outside of us to tell her that her best effort was winning.

    The swimming background of this piece got me hooked in to read. My daughter swims year around, club swim during the winter, and community team during the summer. (I've come across some crazy, crazy swim parents in the last few years) My daughter's swimming skills are not spectacular. A little better than her academics, but nothing to put her on a select team or cause her to gain attention from anyone but her parents. Swimming during winter has helped her "swim in her own lane". She really stopped over focusing on where she placed and looked more towards her personal best. After all when you have 100+ kids swimming freestyle in your age/gender bracket, there is no way short of a miracle that you are going to 'place' for the event. This worked hand in hand with what was going on in school. Next thing I know her grades are improving and her swimming started improving. It was all a matter of attitude and focusing on self improvement.

    Inherently, there is nothing wrong with competing, kids have done it since the dawn of time and have managed to continue the human race. What gets messy is when parents begin to interfere. When they talk to the coach or phone the teacher about giving their child a "second chance". They set the kids up for feelings of entitlement. Sportsmanship and playing fair have become second to winning. Last week was the close of swim season (yay! finally), which (always) finishes for my child at Divisionals. She had the slowest time among the 5 other girls swimming that day in her heat. A few girls started measuring up how they were going to do by talking seed times and declared that "there she (my daughter) was no threat to them". Literally said this to her face. Years ago this would have crushed her before she even stepped up to the edge of the pool. This time around, something different happened. She refused to accept what they said to her. She finished well that day, 2nd as a matter of fact. She came out of the pool huffing and puffing with jelly legs and told me she dropped 4 seconds. I hugged her told her I was proud that she worked so hard and didn't give up despite what was said. A week later she is still basking in the joy.

    Competition is a funny thing. It can just as easily crush us as it can bring us to heights we didn't think was possible.

  7. Amen! This culture of comparison is exhausting and defeating. Focusing on yourself and what works for you is such an incredibly freeing choice--when I can discipline myself to make it and not look over into the other lane!

  8. It is so important to give confidence and self esteem to kids as they are entering their teens because it can really make a difference. Tell your son to keep his chin up!




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