“Hardest Lesson” Is Top Secret, Learned Best Out of School

3 05 2009

Always-unschooled Favorite Daughter marched in her first-ever graduation ceremony last night, seated up front with the perfect GPA president’s list row of students, covered in gold medals and honors sashes as her proud family beamed down, photos to come! But competing against her fellow college students to win academic honors is NOT the subject of this post — quite the opposite.

Dr. Bill Law, president of her college, with Favorite Daughter at graduation

Dr. Bill Law, president of her college, with Favorite Daughter at graduation

What is the hardest lesson of win-lose competition? Losing? — so a child learns through misery, to do anything necessary to inflict that misery on the other guy instead?? COD and his commenters had wise words about kids and sports winning-losing, but today I have some new words of my own too.

Training for everything with the goal of making other people into losers so you can triumph, isn’t my idea of family values to teach kids,  much less my idea of world-class education to serve our national security interests, with the future of the entire human race and our planet as the ultimate grand prize at stake.

Remember the Matthew Broderick movie, “War Games” — brilliant whiz kid trains himself for the highest possible level of gaming competition, matches minds with the very best human scientists and then dramatically beats the most advanced top-secret national defense computer in the world, by teaching it (and himself) the most important human lesson of all: the only way to win is not to play the game.

The win-or-lose game.

JJ Ross has left a new comment at Mrs C’s blog, on the post with a heartbreaking picture of her seven-year-old son burying his head in defeat at his first chess tournament, sitting right next to the winner and her crowing, competitive and way-overly involved (imo) dad, which she headlined as “The Hardest Lesson”:

“Her dad said that she bombed her first tournament and that it’s just like playing an instrument. It’s training, just like a marathon or anything else.”

Talk about competitive, wow. And I don’t mean the child. [shudder]

Just for some different perspective —

When Young Son was barely four, he was something of a chess whiz and a real Russian chess mistress living on campus here with her doctoral student husband, took a big interest in him, wanted to put him in tournaments because she said he had unusual raw talent etc.

His stunned but proud dad actually started researching ivy league chess scholarships (we were both overachieving firstborns in school and infused with the win-or-lose world view . . .)

The problem was, he couldn’t physically write a lick! To enter tournaments of the kind she wanted him in, you have to write down your moves in chess notation. He learned the notation mentally very quickly but the actual graphic production with pencil and paper, no way. Fine motor skills stood between him and chess glory! 🙂

But it was all for the best that his writing was delayed as it turned out, because by the time he COULD (theoretically — we’re radical unschoolers so we never tested this) write neatly under time pressure, his chess tutoring had ended and with it the focus on competition for ranking rather than each game for its own sake, all the little interlocking puzzles within it that so fascinated him. He’s 13 now and the clock still means almost nothing to him, he runs on Young Son Time, grin — so tournament time pressure on each move probably would have ruined chess as he enjoys it.

Marathons and music are the same (not) training and (not) competition for him. He takes long solitary walks most days but only because he chooses to and enjoys it in his own way, not for speed, fitness, training for competition, imposed virtue or because I throw him out of the house the way adults threw us outside when I was a kid!

Sorry to be long-winded but just to finish up, now he plays a musical instrument that can be played in competition solo or in a band and he practices his head off, absolutely loves it but not because he wants to enter or win any competition, or get better than other pipers. . . he loves the music and loves making it, period.

It’s really a whole different perspective from how I was brought up and schooled, so I haven’t taught it to my kids at all; they’ve taught me.

You can’t know when they are four or seven, what life lessons THEY will teach YOU if you’re still able to learn. Seems to me great home education parenting is not a competitive sport, ideally combining the best of chess and music, as a marathon we finish triumphantly despite not training for it!


Some other snooking around that connects:

Computer Program to Take on Jeopardy

Teaching without Teaching Even When It’s Math

So I Loaded This New Chess Program for Kids

Creep Alert: Train Only the Best-Fitting Boys for College

and from the physical sports training angle, maybe
Colleges Hot to Attract Winter Wonderkind (pun intended):

My kids are deeply into the arts and entertainment rather than athletics, but it all seems like the same power of story to me and shares the same happy ending, if we can keep our own focus on what counts.

Public success isn’t decided by the diplomas and deeds [or tournament trophies] you have on file, any more than success at home is having the right marriage and birth certificates on file, or money in the bank.

and Marathon Wimbledon Final:

I blogged Wimbledon at Culture Kitchen as proving a case against standardized, mechanized talent development, in kids and other human creatures.   Oh, and there’s “Does the Church Play Tennis, Can Prayer Save School and Are You My Mother?”



12 responses

4 05 2009
Crimson Wife

Congrats to your daughter on her graduation!

4 05 2009
Mrs. C

WOW Congrats!

Poor little Emperor has no idea he’s been so inspiring. BTW, he is pestering me to play chess again, but not a word on a tournament. I *know* Patrick will be playing in them and mentioning them, so we’ll see what he says then. :]

4 05 2009

He really IS inspiring Mrs. C. 🙂

5 05 2009

So is FavD, JJ.

Of course, I thought that was a picture of you at your graduation.

Hugs to FavD! 🙂


5 05 2009

On the win/lose sports/competition thing —

It is a shame that good messages are not learned/suggested at these events.

I am always very proud of our DS when he competes at Tae Kwon Do tournaments. Through his coach and, I hope, his parents, and his own very good mind, DS has understood that the purpose is to enjoy, to learn and maybe get better. Not necessarily win.

He was recently at one of the better tournaments we have ever attended. There were actually a large number of guys to compete with in his bracket. Sometimes it’s him and one other guy — or no good match at all. But there were 8 competitors in DS’s bracket this time.

He took 3rd.

Which means he won his first fight and lost the 2nd one, to the guy who won the bracket.

And that was a very good result because both match-ups were competitive — evenly matched with good skills on both sides.

But DS’s reaction to losing the 2nd fight was, as it always is, to analyze the technique the other guy used. To see where he was stronger, how DS should adjust next time around.

Part of it is not taking the whole thing too seriously — the world doesn’t end if you come in 8th, after all. But the other part is seeing the whole thing as part of long-term enjoyable training, learning as he goes.

He tries to do well, for himself, and doesn’t get the kids who come to class who don’t try. How is that fun?

But we do talk about parents using the classes as babysitting, too. Nobody is happy about that.

Anyway, rambling on — I was never athletic in any way aside from bouncing a few tennis balls back and forth with my sister. But that was mainly about getting to wear the cute outfits. 🙂 I took as little PE in school as possible, got a gentleman’s B and was happy with that.

So it is interesting to see how DS is handling all of this. He’s handling it pretty well, I think. 🙂


5 05 2009

Yes, yes, exactly!

“But DS’s reaction to losing the 2nd fight was, as it always is, to analyze the technique the other guy used. To see where he was stronger, how DS should adjust next time around. . . seeing the whole thing as part of long-term enjoyable training, learning as he goes. He tries to do well, for himself, and doesn’t get the kids who come to class who don’t try. How is that fun? “

THIS is how to love what you learn, and learn what you love! From the inside out with self-reinforcing joy. Ruining this lesson is what’s wrong with compulsory schooling (even at home) and god forbid, parental “training” and behavioral conditioning of children as if they were subhuman pets or farm animals we own and work for profit.

Imo learning at its very best is life, and it feels good and is good for you no matter what the specific “it” is, like falling in love and wanting to be worthy of the object of your affection! (how Doris Kearns Goodwin loves baseball and history, FavD and I love books and writing, how I loved tennis and Young Son loves all things Celtic — OTOH he still likes chess but never fell in love with it)

When you throw yourself into it, lose yourself in the flow, it grows in all directions and so do you! Love the doing and being of it, the whole enchilada and everything connected with it, and then you naturally enjoy getting together with others who love it too, and learning from each other competition or not.

Then it becomes collegial even when you do “play” and keep score, collegial as in wanting to hang out at the dojo or dance studio or the park where folks play chess, and be mentored and someday be the guy everyone knows, helping newbies and younger kids. Not for points or grades or trophies.

People who do it but don’t love it like you do, will be all around you at competitions (often winning the prizes, if winning is their whole raison d’etre)— a lesson really worth learning. If our unschooling has a hidden curriculum, this is probably it. 🙂

FavD has a dancer friend finishing the International Baccalaureate program here, who recently mused about how long it had taken her to notice both kinds of students in her program. She suffered all sorts of anxiety and stage fright, always considered herself the hard-training, hyper-competitive type who had to win even when it hurt, but learned that she didn’t like those kids and wouldn’t be one of them for the world! And that there was another kind of kid, academic but collegial about it.

So she’ll go off to university still with the same scholarships and awards her “trained” peers “won” but also with an inside love of learning and the life of the mind, something they sneer at, can’t even understand. Happier than she’s ever been in school, valuing herself and her friends and their pursuits beyond ranking and grades. Her outside wins are now a byproduct of all that authentic inside winning. The real lesson is, you can earn accolades and make piles of money with your innovative ideas and well-educated engagement, without limiting your life to trained-monkey tricks.

(The movie to see, Mrs. C, is Strictly Ballroom.)

If I were blogging here to make money and/or win a stupid prize, competing with you guys to score public points and bragging rights, it would ruin it for me.

I guess most people call that “training” like the chess winner’s dad did, but to me it’s the difference between School and Education. it’s a self-initiated sort of flow, where you push yourself to learn for its own sake even if you never compete to “win” a prize. And if you DO compete, it’s not your end goal but just another part of the learning and enjoying..

5 05 2009

“The task of the university is the creation of the future, so far as
rational thought and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the

But for many of today’s academics, rationality is in question,
civilization is anathema, and universities have not created, for
themselves or for their societies, the future Whitehead envisaged.

then, are we about? If . . . American universities are
“at the top of their game,” then just what game are they playing, and
what’s the prize?

— Stanley N. Katz, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 20, 2002 issue, in “The Pathbreaking, Fractionalized, Uncertain World of Knowledge”

16 07 2009
How My “Unschooling Guinea Pig” Was Wooed for TV and Learned a Life Lesson We All Could Use « Cocking A Snook!

[…] *************** May 3, 2009 Hardest Lesson Is Top Secret, Best Learned Out of School: […]

17 01 2011

Sunday’s NYT had a big story about university fundraising (called “development” which is not merely ironic but Orwellian considering education traditionally has meant development other than for, much less OF, money.)

So playing professional fundraising hardball with current and former students is a good thing now, even getting to be the primary thing in evaluating America’s academic leaders? I can almost hear triumphant voices from the Dark Side of the Force.

25 04 2011
29 05 2011
Spring Sprang Sprung! Doctor J’s Kids Bustin’ Out All Over « Cocking A Snook!

[…] momentous move out on her own (she’s lived at home through university) all while sustaining her unbroken streak on the president’s list to lock up her perfect career GPA with a Phi Beta Kappa […]

13 09 2011
“Partisan Polarization” Just Another Pathology of Hypercompetition? « Cocking A Snook!

[…] of whack and what those experiences can do TO kids rather than FOR them. We’ve even looked at killer-instinct gameplay about chess specifically, the power of this next story: She was, and is, a ferocious competitor, a psychological attribute […]

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