Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Government through the Desires: Unhealthy Competition and Other Ruinous Things We Learned on the Playground

by Megan Hoyt
Now, we see why it is that the child finds himself in a new and very stimulating element when he goes to school. For the first time, he has to find his footing amongst his equals. At home, he has seldom had more than one equal, and that his friend––the brother or sister next him in age. Here, he has a whole class of his fellows, some stronger, some weaker than himself, working with him, shoulder to shoulder, running neck and neck with him in lessons and games. (Charlotte Mason, volume 5, Formation of Character, p. 180)

I had something completely different in mind to talk about this week, but while I was reading Charlotte Mason's Formation of Character, this passage leaped off the page at me. And suddenly I understood all the weaknesses and frailties of my own character -- all in one divine moment. Then I read President Obama's speech to the families in Newtown, Connecticut, and I knew I had to write about this. But first, here's an inspiring video for you on what I consider healthy competition. Meet Brooke!

Brooke says, "I love climbing because there's a lot of challenges in climbling. I don't know, it seems so cool just to be doing move after move with different holds. There's so many different ways that you can climb."

She climbs because she loves to climb. She wins because she trained herself well to do what she loves to do. She's gifted in this area -- and that may be partly genetic. She works hard in training, not because she wants to show others she's better than them. She does it because it brings her joy. That is my idea of healthy competition. Now for what Miss Mason has to say about it:

Parents prize the discipline of the playground almost as much as that of the schoolroom; and rightly so––not only for the unequalled physical training that the games afford; but for the "pluck," the "endurance, foresight, strength, and skill," the obedience to law, the deference to authority, the readiness to give place to the best man, the self-reliance, the faithfulness to each other, even in a bad cause, cultivated by means of the school games––with their laws, their captains, their contests, their rivalries. And what finer training could the boys [and girls] have for a world in which pluck and temper win the prizes?

Megan (me!), the only kindergartner who climbed the flagpole and rang the bell at field day, 1969
The playground does invaluable work, and has much to do with the making of what is best and most characteristic in Englishmen; but, indeed, the training of the playground, as that of the schoolroom, is incomplete. The fact is, that the discipline of schoolroom and playground alike is largely carried on by stimulating and balancing, one against another, those desires which are common to us all as human beings––the desires of power, of society, of esteem, of knowledge, of mere animal activity, of excelling the rest, of work, or action, even avarice––the desire of wealth. 

Here is a formidable list; and it is quite possible, by playing upon and adjusting these natural desires, to govern a human being so that he may make a respectable figure in the world, while yet he has little sense of duty, feeble affections, and dispositions left to run wild, wanting the culture which should train mere disposition into character

Now, this way of governing a person through his desires is the easiest in the world. The nurse knows it very well; his desire, of praise, or play, or lollipops, leaves something always in her hands wherewith to reward the child's good behavior. When attempts are made to stimulate people en masse, it is through their desires. They want work or play or power, money or land, and whoever plays upon any one of these desires gets the popular ear. 


Because this government through the desires is the easiest kind of government it is the most common, in the school as elsewhere; prizes, praise, place, success, distinction, whether in games or examinations, these are enough to keep a school going with such vigour, such ├ęclat, that nobody is conscious of the want of other springs of action.

All these desires are right in themselves, within certain limits, and we may believe they were implanted in us as spurs to progress; the man who has no desire of wealth, no ambition, does not help himself and the world forward as does he, who has these desires. Again, in the school the desires are, on the whole, well regulated, one brought into play against another, and the result is, such sturdy qualities, sterling virtues, as "make a man" of the boy brought under school discipline. The weak place is, that boys and girls are treated too much "in the rough," without regard to the particular tendencies in each which require repression, or direction, or encouragement. The vain girl is made vainer, the diffident is snubbed: there is no time to hand a crutch to the lame, to pick up the stumbling. All must keep the pace or drop out of the race. 

It is astonishing how crude may be the character, how unformed the principles, how undeveloped the affections towards country, kindred, or kind, after a successful school career; the reason being, that the principle of government through the desires has left these things out of count. Nor is this the whole; the successful schoolboy too often develops into a person devoid of intelligent curiosity who hates reading and shirks the labour of thought.

This passage is so meaty that I hardly know where to begin, and I can't believe I surged right past it all the other times I read volume five. But please stick with me here. The first thing I want to address is this idea that our physical attributes and even our natural personality traits somehow give us value in society. I used to be very athletic -- up until around the age of eight when I began getting unexplained headaches. I now think they were probably caffeine headaches since my parents allowed me to drink coffee when I was young. No one in the seventies really talked much about caffeine addiction. I even had an EEG, and nothing was found. Silly to think about it all now. But my point is that life can be extremely unpredictable. If I had based my value on my ability to win a three-legged race or the fifty yard dash or the fact that I was the only one who climbed the flagpole, that would have been a gigantic mistake. In a few short years, my body was rendered incapable of physical exertion without getting a massive headache. And there went my brilliant success on the playground. It took with it all manner of glory and self-esteem, too. But see, that should not have happened! My worth does not come from my athletic ability. Or my academic ability. Or my humility and spirituality. These are all gifts from God. Success is the result of hard work, true. But do you know how many people have worked every bit as hard at their careers as the CEOs of all the fortune 500 companies and have NOT been successful? What a shame to place value on someone based on how well they navigate the playground.

Now let's talk personality. How many of you have met me in person? For those who have, you'll note a lack of zest for life, an inwardness. I'm very introverted and introspective, easily worried and generally anxious. I'm quiet and reserved. I sometimes am able to rise to the occasion and mask this with extroverted humor, but only once I know someone really well. I tend not to take on high profile work where I'll be the center of attention, preferring to work with small groups of children at a co-op or on my computer from the safety of my home office. Live and in person I am not very "large and in charge," in other words. But who is considered "successful" in this world? Here's what Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, say: "The winner is not the one who practiced more. It's who competes better. It's who lives up to the moment when the band is playing, the lights are bright, and the judges are watching." 

Introverts don't stand a ghost of a chance of winning then. It's the leader, the schmoozer, the one with the sparkling personality, who rises to the top like the cream of the crop. But are they better people? Or were they simply better at the game of desires they learned on the playground? Meanwhile, the vain girl is made vainer, the diffident is snubbed: there is no time to hand a crutch to the lame, to pick up the stumbling.

 This ought not to be so.

Bronson and Merryman wrote another book in 2009 called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children that turned the idea of praise and rewards on its ear. I haven't read it, but one reviewer, Daniel Murphy, said this: "What does a ten thousand foot overview of childhood development strategies say? The best evidence implies that the book you want to read if you want your child to become a highly functioning and happy adult is To Kill a Mockingbird. Raise your girl like Atticus Finch raised Scout, and your boy the way he raised Jem: have dinner with them every night. Discuss current events. Read to your children at bedtime. Speak clearly about your values (compare Atticus Finch's approach to the problem of racism to the methods suggested in NatureShock). Make them play outside on a regular basis. Make them go to bed on time, after you make them do their homework. Not very glitzy, is it? A bit labor intensive, maybe? But find a mentor teacher, or a great pediatrician, and my bet is they'll place their money on Scout and Jem to succeed best in the long run."

The "point" to life is not to win or to get rich by any means possible, or to achieve the status of movie star, rock star, or millionaire, despite the emphasis we often place on the opinions of said "stars," both in the media and to be honest in real life for many Americans. I believe, and I think Miss Mason would agree, that the "point" is to love God, form strong bonds with His creation, and form relationships with our fellow man that nurture and that we can treasure. The way we get there is to play fairly, love deeply, and cherish what is good while spurning what is bad. 

I LOVE the relationship these two sisters have with one another. And I love their art, too.

"When we first started painting, it was for enjoyment. I really didn't want to sell my paintings because I loved them so much! People ask, you know, that maybe it's inevitable to feel a little bit of competition with your sibling, but I actually don't really think so. I feel like this kind of relationship I'm very blessed to have. " Victoria Yin, and sister Zoe, art prodigies

It sounds pretty easy, really. Love and be loved. Serve and create beauty in the world. Be rewarded for it or not. These girls don't really even think about the money. 

And lest you think I am completely against competition and rough-housing, I found this in the current Vanity Fair, excerpted from the book Brothers Emmanuel, by Ezekiel Emmanuel about growing up with his brothers, Rahm and Ari. I may have to buy this book!

"When Ari was still sleeping in a crib, Rahm and I would climb onto the top level of our bunkbed and jump into it with such force that it rattled the hardware that held it together and bounced Ari off the mattress and into the air. Unlike Rahm when he was an infant, Ari loved it. 

The wild physical play helped us to bond as brothers. There was also something about sharing a room that made it easy for us to develop an intense level of loyalty and trust. There, we tested ourselves against each other and, in the unguarded moments before we fell asleep, we confessed our worries and hopes and practiced a boy's version of empathy."

I think I believe in "safe" competition where a child is affirmed and loved throughout. Here's one more excerpt, then I'll move on. I love this!

"At the time it seemed a bit strange that our father never taught us much about music or skiing, two passions of his. To his credit, though, he did eventually introduce us to chess, which he played extremely well. These after-dinner and Sunday-afternoon games were played either at the dining-room table or in the living room, where the board was set up on the round, white marble coffee table. 

My father did not believe in falsely building his sons' self-esteem by purposely letting us win, or tolerating sloppy play. Sometimes he would simply stop the game and then show us, with quickly moving hands, how the next dozen moves would inevitably lead us to defeat." 

In stark contrast to this even-handed treatment, our unspoken playground rules offer us a more cutthroat method by which to live. Evolutionists would say this is the result of homo sapiens' natural inclination toward a "survival of the fittest" mentality, and there may be some small shred of truth to that idea when it comes to childhood competition (although I prefer to think of it as our inherited sin nature coming out). So am I just not "fit" for this planet because my parents didn't know not to give me caffeine on an irregular basis? What does that say about people who die in car accidents or who are murdered senselessly as children in Newtown, Connecticut? Were they unfit? If I were to follow evolutionary theory, I'd have to say that Mother Teresa was a nobody who didn't matter, as were Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus Christ. Jesus turned this whole idea of survival of the fittest on its head. If you want to be great in God's kingdom, you must learn to be a servant. Wow. Quite a difference! And the Helen Keller's of the world along with Chris Reeve and Nick Vujicic are proof that type of thinking is 100% wrong. 

While competition can be good and helpful and can lead us toward stronger intellectual habits, it can also punish us mercilessly and lead us to despise ourselves. I've seen dejected kids, chosen last for teams, clinging desperately to one another for comfort and friendship. They're bright, intelligent, normal children who don't have money for clothes that are in the latest style or don't have access to a dad who can teach them to throw a ball well or whose minds don't operate well when competing because of anxiety and fear or who don't wash their hair as often as they probably should because no one at home cares to tell them they need to. Nerds, we call them. Outcasts. Worthless. Worthy of nothing but bullying according to the other playground players. And God's heart is pierced because He made them beautiful. His inward glory shines through them. He has placed within them a kernel of grace to achieve their heart's desires just as He has in the hearts of the other kids. If only their value was seen by those who matter to them in life. Like Gungor says in the song, "You make beautiful things; You make beautiful things out of us." Let's also remember where we would be without "nerds" like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, not to mention all the incisive comic book wit we would miss out on without Charles Schulz who identified with his Charlie Brown character and Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, or all the brilliant economists, statisticians, scientists, inventors, authors, artists, and composers who were thought of as odd, socially awkward, or somehow less than perfect in some other way (think Beethoven).

Couldn't resist putting up this pic of my boys.
The playground can make or break a child. So can the classroom. So can their home life and friendships. Or lack thereof. Teachers, that's where we come in. We have to help dispel all the negative self talk our students bring into the classroom because of a "Government through the Desires" mindset that skewed success toward the athletic or the quick thinker. They have NOT failed in life just because they failed the playground test.

So what about the "pluck," the "endurance, foresight, strength, and skill," the obedience to law, the deference to authority, the readiness to give place to the best man, the self-reliance, the faithfulness to each other, that children learn on the playground? Those are all good things that naturally occur as a result of healthy competition, supervised by teachers or parents whose authority keeps the students in check. And it's the parents' influence, too, (like good ole Atticus Finch) that makes a difference in the heart of a child.  
Here's what gripped my heart about President Obama's address at Newtown:

"Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves -- our child -- is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child's very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won't -- that we can't -- always be there for them. They'll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear. 

This is our first task -- caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how as a society, we will be judged."

He continues to say:

"The warmth of a child's embrace. That is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger -- we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness."

I want to leave you with two thoughts here from Miss Mason about how to conquer our habitual tendencies toward pronouncing success on our children without working on those areas of extreme importance within their character. These are the most important functions of a Charlotte Mason lifestyle, which is, I know, what we all aspire to as it honors and glorifies God. Here's how we can teach and train our children without focusing on producing desire for success by offering rewards, which is really what happens on the playground and in the classroom -- even if the reward is being well thought of and adored by peers instead of stickers, ribbons, and lollipops.

photo courtesy of
 Government of the Kingdom of Mansoul (Yes, we're going there again.)

"We have now to consider a subject of unspeakable importance to every being called upon to sustain a reasonable life here, with the hope of the fuller life hereafter; I mean, the government of the kingdom of Mansoul. Every child who lives long enough in the world is invested, by degrees, with this high function, and it is the part of his parents to instruct him in his duties, and to practise him in his tasks. Now, the government of this kingdom of Mansoul is, like that of some well-ordered states, carried on in three chambers, each chamber with its own functions, exercised, not by a multitude of counsellors, but by a single minister.

"The will is the controller of the passions and emotions, the director of the desires, the ruler of the appetites. But observe, the passions, the desires, the appetites, are there already, and the will gathers force and vigour only as it is exercised in the repression and direction of these; for though the will appears to be of purely spiritual nature, yet it behaves like any member of the body in this––that it becomes vigorous and capable in proportion as it is duly nourished and fitly employed" (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p 319).

May we all endeavor to repress and direct our own wills and help our children and students become vigorous and capable in the employment of theirs by nourishing and invigorating it with much practice -- not by rewarding the strong and stepping on the weak but by the careful selection of living materials that will nurture a child's heart of compassion toward his fellow man and by creating healthy competition born out of struggle and humility. As I grapple with these tough concepts, I think my (our) understanding and compassion for my children and students continues to grow. What an important job we have!

"If anyone should wish to deliberate why God prizes children so highly, he will find no weightier reason than this, that children are simpler and more susceptible to the remedy which the mercy of God grants to the lamentable condition of men." (John Amos Comenius)
Megan and her dad, circa fourth grade or so



  1. I fear for this generation of autistic children who have been trained and molded by behavior training and rewards. They have not been taught to think for themselves. :-/

  2. Years ago, I watched a documentary on autism -- I'm talking 1980s or so. The teacher/therapist was rewarding each correct response by popping an m&m in the child's mouth. It was alarming.

  3. Introvert here, waving hello from the safety of my home! :-) Just kidding. I am a homebody though. You put a lot of thought into this post. I'll have to come back and savor it more when crazy kids aren't mulling about.

  4. I just found an article your readers might enjoy on the dark side of preschool (peers, social skills, and stress)