In one-and-a-half weeks’ time, I will graduate from Grade 3. And I gotta say, it’s been real. At the beginning of this year, you couldn’t tell me anything, man. I was all Hey, I’ve been playing “parent parent” for eight and a half years, pal, you can’t scare me. I’ve seen things that would give you nightmares. Christ, I’ve done things that still give me nightmares. Well, guess what? I was wrong.
Grade 3 was like a crappy reality show: Survivor, maybe, replete with a cast of ruthlessly ambitious contestants who would stop at nothing to win the title of Grade 3 of the Year, a panel of sadistic judges and a horde of bloodthirsty spectators ringside. And I was bad at Grade 3. I sucked at it. Grade 3 proved to be a reflection of my chronic inability to rise above such petty competitiveness, and my on-going failure to handle the provocations of those sufferers of the most acute form of CCD (that’s Compulsive Competitiveness preceding the Disorder) with either Zen-like indifference or ice-pick bitchy decisiveness. Grade 3 was a test, in other words, which I failed in some horrible, damning way.
To be fair to me, I did not see it coming. Down in the lowly ranks of junior prep, sports day still boasts events like the sack race relay without any winners or losers, and at prize-giving, everyone gets a certificate – mostly for things like “diligence”. Some of this puffing and fluffing in my opinion amounts to a bit of a cheap swindle for kids – let’s face it, it’s fool’s gold that medal for “participation” is made of – but I should’ve paid way more attention to those parents who took a more hard-line stance against it – they felt cheated and I should’ve asked myself why.
Parenting for my generation is a competitive sport from day one. But, hey, I’m not judging; I remember labouring through What to Expect: The First Year, unfailingly cross-checking the developmental milestones catalogued at the end of each chapter to see if William’s midline-crossing skills were in the ‘Advanced’ category, or at least ‘Normal’. And there were dozens of tests in infancy – from latching to “colic” (universal code for “screamer”) – to separate the alpha parents from the rest. Later, with the onset of toddlerhood, pooing, bed-time and the enthusiasm with which organically-grown salt- and sugar-free broccoli was devoured were all minefields designed to expose my parental inadequacies. Birthday parties were opportunities to minutely compare the screaming, biting and other anti-social behaviour and possible psychopathic tendencies of small, sticky little things, followed by the eye-watering challenge of controlling my child in the face of only a girl party pack leftover at the end of the party and a popped balloon. No, in retrospect I don’t much like brand new mommy-Laurie either, but what I’m saying is; I thought I could handle it – mostly because Russell came along and wiped the smug grin of my chops.
Yup, you can bet your child’s Head Girl badge, I’d be insufferable still if I hadn’t spawned that Molotov cocktail, who didn’t “sleep through” until he was three-and-a-half years old (when, BTW, he did it that once, and then went straight back to nightly demonstrations of either his or my unmet emotional needs), and who spent half of his time at Jungle Tots polishing the Naughty Chair with his arse for throwing his 4-piece Noddy puzzle at the wall. But this is not about that freak show with impulse control issues from gargling too much freak juice in utero. Stay focussed.
This is about Grade 3. Despite having earned my parenting ultra-marathon souvenir T to wear to the school car park on Casual Fridays, nothing had prepared me for Grade 3. Because Grade 3, it turns out, is principally about pitting children against one another, and I feel deeply conflicted about it.
I mean, okay, there is the odd mother still stuck in first gear. (The one who posted a picture on Facebook a couple of months back of her nine-year-old slurping his kale and wheatgrass shake, which we learned from the accompanying status update, he insists on after his rugby match on Saturday mornings, springs to mind. And why, oh why, while we’re ruminating on that, does Facebook not add a “Dislike” button with a thumbs down or a protruding middle finger icon? In its continued absence, I was forced to retaliate with one of Russell gulping a neon pink McFlurry.) But, mostly, Grade 3 is about judging children’s performance.
As my sons attend a very traditional boys’ school, most of these contests took place on the sports field, from the side-lines of which parents are permitted to witness the winners trounce the losers, but there was also some separation of the best from the rest at the end of term assemblies, where certificates for brains and one for goody-goody-ness (read: popularity – actually decided by vote) were presented before the glinting ranks of iPhones wielded by parents packing the public gallery. But the common denominator throughout was the binary outcome – success or failure – and my ambivalence.
There are, it seems to me, with some irony, two polarised ways to view anything, and yet, see some truth in both. A friend of mine – let’s call him Lance, because that is his name – rolled his eyes at me when I was boring the broeks off everyone at a braai railing against kids being subject to such intense competitive pressure, and then he delivered a bastardized version of the theory of evolution that revolved around competition. He bandied terms like survival of the fittest and natural selection like he was Richard Dawkins and cited various insects, several plains game species and sexual selection in peacocks, which was confusing. But I got it. I don’t actually subscribe to the school of shielding kids from competition. I do think that they should be exposed to it for all the reasons you could already recite:
It prepares kids for life in a world where you need to have the courage to put yourself at risk. Risk-taking is a triumph of hope over fear: you need to believe that you will succeed at your grubby little endeavours despite the odds and despite meeting failure at first. I can grasp that sport might be a good teacher – an arena in which to learn to control fear and anger before they control you, to learn that to win, you usually have to climb over the back of losing, to learn that you can’t do it alone. I’m getting choked up just writing about it, but there is another interpretation of all this, somewhat less inspiring and noble, and it endlessly gnaws at me.
When Mark pours over the U9 team sheets that come home in the homework folder after cricket trials, when he or I turn up week after week to shout war-cries from the side-lines, how much is taking an interest in our child’s life, supporting our child, being an Involved Parent, to borrow from right-wing conservatives – you know, so he doesn’t wind up on drugs – and how much is adding to the pressure the kid’s under? By rewarding him with our time and attention (especially Dad’s, which is so much scarcer) aren’t we telling him that this is important to us, that we want him to be good at it? And even if we try to counter that message somehow, that time and attention guarantees he now wants to be good at this, and we’ve turned up the knob on the pressure cooker.
And when I schlepp William and Russell from one coach to the next every afternoon, so that they stand a chance of having their names listed in the A Team column, or at least the B, instead of the Mixed Ability teams 1 through 6, or God forbid, the “tag team” in rugby, the “flotation device race” at the gala, there are many, many levels to my motives I have to ask uncomfortable questions about. So much of my life is devoted to this particularly depressing pursuit, I have had plenty of time to interrogate them:
How much of forcing a sulky Russell to attend cricket practice – being, to strip it down to its G-string, a pushy parent – is about teaching my child not to quit, as I tell anyone who’ll listen, to get him to understand first-hand about the relationship between practice and performance, the pay-back from perseverance and blah blah blah (because frankly that lout wouldn’t do anything but iZombie himself into oblivion if I left him to it), and how much is about wanting to help him make the cut, the end?
Let’s put it this way, if it was his drumming that he whinged so much about going to every week (which he doesn’t), if it was his break-dancing that he begged me to just let him quit (which he never has), would I refuse? Would I be yelling stuff like: That’s it Russell, I have had with you. I am sick to death of you whining your arse off about cricket week after week. For years now I have tried to stay calm and remind you through clenched teeth of your Commitment in a deep sonorous voice, again and again and again. Well, that’s all over. From this day forth, kiddo, if you so much as sigh …Bam! You just got sent to reform school. Or cricket camp, where you will have to play cricket all day long. At night they will give a tub of something called Bum Unguent – for the chaffing – so you will be ready to play again the next day. Sometimes they will have day-night games – that never end. It will be like Ibiza, with no trance music or drugs. Just pain.
I tell myself that it’s for his sake I am making him go to cricket practice now. I have learned the hard way that school coaches are not so much coaches as selectors – judges of the privately hired guns who’ve actually drilled your kid in basic technique over and over and over again. So I’m stacking the odds for him. I’m one of those parents I wish someone had warned me about last year. I say to my poor conflicted self, “Look Self, at least you’re not one of those saddos working in the Mums’ Army to earn the right to demand 1st XI re-trials,” but that’s only because I can also convince myself this will be to his advantage – in the long run – I’m building resilience in the face of unfairness, see, and when the selection committee has been infiltrated by the Mums Army – because I can’t be there one day to tell his boss that he’s worked really, really hard for the promotion. But I’m no different really; I too don’t want my kid to try, try and fail again – that’s why I’m making sure that Russell can at least actually throw balls and hit balls. So that next year, in Grade 3, when he works out that the social hierarchy corresponds to the team sheet, that to quite a real extent, being a somebody versus being a nobody at his school of almost eighty Grade 3 boys is going to depend on his ability to throw balls and hit balls, he can make an informed decision about whether or not to quit. But, come off it, at this point I am the one who gives a damn, not him. And how sad is that? Jesus.
And when I ignore all the gladiator standing on the sandy floor of the Colusseum crap about sport and its value for one minute, and confront the reality of what I am making my kids spend, no, scratch that, waste their ten thousand Malcom Gladwell hours on trying to be “good” at: that’s right, throwing balls, hitting balls and kicking balls, that’s when I really wince. These pursuits ain’t Darwin’s prize-winners, Lance.
This slapped me across the face last Thursday afternoon, when I sat watching one of William’s last cricket games of the season. There is no way I can convey to you what this like for me, but imagine yourself trapped at the foreign film festival, for six hours. Something happened and there was a collective groan from the other parents. For a moment I thought once again about how my mother had failed to teach me anything about cricket, and I felt sorry for myself. But I didn’t burst out crying or anything, because it was time to take another sip of my Diet Coke. Anyway, whatever the thing was that had happened, it spelled doom for St Peter’s U9 B. A few moments later, their last batsman was run out (even I understood in an instant that the poor kid’s frantic dash across to the wickets had ended in disaster), and there was another chorused – albeit sympathetic, I thought – groan from the adults, when one of the mothers rebuked us – good-naturedly, it must also be said: “Come on, everyone, this is character building for them.”
Everyone nodded, approvingly. Perhaps guiltily, perhaps with relief, there was unanimous agreement that we had wrung – as only middle-class parents can do – from this squalid defeat, an important life lesson for our children, a growth opportunity. Our sons would be better men someday. Maybe. Cumulatively, in the long-run, these experiences of having to pick themselves up off their skinned knees will amount to something of significance. But on the way home, as I jerked spasmodically once more through the clogged arteries of our urban sprawl, I couldn’t help but think that sometimes, lady, it just is what is: a bunch of adults watching their nine year-olds lose at a sorry game of cricket at a rather dreary little school on a Thursday afternoon that we will never get back.
From this day on, I vowed, I will only endure the fathomless hell of the William Nicol to get them to Kumon maths and other things that will directly lead to their acceptance to Harvard. If I am going to be pathologically over-invested in the success of my mini-me, dammit, I can’t be distracted by throwing balls – I need to be long-sighted enough to see the day when I will be standing at some ghastly do after William’s valedictory, running a finger around the rim of my Bootleggers wine glass saying, “We were actually quite surprised by how well he did.” Just ask me, my eyes will plead, just ask me.
Okay, fine, so now I’m over-doing bitter and cynical. It’s like bitter has sunk its incisors into my jugular and won’t let go, which, I do realise, is almost as tedious as Facebook posts featuring offspring’s merit certificates or conversations at fortieth birthday parties on the subject of a child’s prowess at throwing balls, hitting balls and kicking balls, (when all I want to get back to is discussing the Scheduled Drug Club and whose keys I’d hypothetically like to pull from the hat at the end of the night). So let me concede a few points:
I cannot deny the sheer, unadulterated exhilaration on William’s face before and after one of his games that involve balls, of every kind. Actually it’s more like awash with savage delight. He may have been unconsciously emotionally blackmailed with his parent’s attention and his peer’s approval, and he may be nought but a puppet of the testosterone and adrenaline coursing through his veins, but his passion for competitive sport now burns fiercely in his skinny breast. Which is a good thing, because kids with absentee parents and who don’t participate at school (and notice how we substitute “participate” all of a sudden) wind up in malls, which inevitably leads to playing Russian Roulette in the car park. And when my vision hasn’t been blurred by having to watch that hopeful little face fall with disappointment when his name wasn’t called, I can see that William has more grit. What’s more, his desire to meet the standard demanded of the A and B team selectors, guarantees a parade of muscled young bodies through my life for years to come. It’s like going to Beefcakes every afternoon. It’s just a perk of the job as a mother of boys. If I had girls, all I’d get is fifty-year-old Teacher Colleen in her leotard and tutu.
None of these concessions, though, negates my nagging suspicions that much of this stuff is bullshit, fed by parents and the schools, and is not good for kids. Whatever the benefits of academic and sporting competition for them (and FYI St Peter’s manages to make choir a competitive sport), I won’t deny either that it is also partly about gratifying parents’ and teachers egos. You don’t have to have a degree in psychology to get what’s going on with us parents. Hah! At last I’m back, your unconscious crows, And this time there will none of those ghastly humiliations for which I’m supposed to be grateful. Those phonies who say stuff like, “We just want him to be an ordinary kid”, are only lying to themselves. I even have a theory that for many women who spent their childhoods on the side-lines of their brother’s life, the next best thing to actually being the son, is to be the mother of one, and by God, he’s going to be in the 1st XI. But schools are equally complicit in using kids for their own ends.
That’s right teachers; you can nail those signs up on the edges of the sports fields warning parents to behave, but the real reason you don’t ban parental interference is because you have egos too – fed by the throngs of parents hovering around your clipboard. And while we’re being honest, you do also now owe those Class Moms who extorted all that money from the other parents for you and dealt with the stinking pile of sweaty jocks in lost property whilst praying for death to take them. As Hannibal Lector reminded us, it would be fraudulent to deny the existence of quid pro quo obligations in human relations. And the way you behave – what you reward or quite literally, decorate with those little scrolls to sew onto the blazer, and what you punish with anonymity, day in and day out – sends children a powerful message. When I asked a then eight-year-old William after I’d picked him up in the Chapel car park one afternoon last summer after athletics trials with sagging shoulders and a forlorn little face, why it was so important to be good at sport at school, he sighed and, his voice dripping with the un-uttered “Duh”, patiently explained to me that it was “Because then you can help St Peter’s beat the other schools. And then you’re practically immortal.”
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a bit pitiful. So these holidays, I am going to pretend that we live in Terabithia. We watched the movie – Bridge to Terabithia – with the boys last Sunday night, because I had loved the book as a child, and I was overcome with wistfulness. I felt nostalgic for a fictitious childhood, which is pathetic, I know, especially because (spoiler alert) one of the kids dies in the creek at the end, which isn’t ideal, but still, these holidays I will resist with all my might any cricket clinics or the temptation to use their iPads to coerce them to do Mathletics.
Instead, these holidays we are going to pretend that they have a childhood in which they come home after school to long, lazy afternoons with nothing to do but go exploring in the woods across the stream with their dog and build forts and play elaborate fantasy games in which they cast themselves as the heroes vanquishing dark foes, where it is always summer, the light is sepia-tinged and time drifts dowsily along to the buzz of cicadas. And they will grow up to become Peter Jackson, after a brief stint as a fortune hunter diving ocean wrecks and an undercover agent for Green Peace in Columbia. And I will hark back to Facebook posts like these from the mother of the future procurement manager for an industrial waste management company based in Germiston – with a smile.