We're NOT Number One! (And we don't wanna be.)

On the way to the "end of the season" soccer party, my daughter, Molly confidently announces, "When I grow up I want to be on the Women's World Cup Soccer team." Molly is six years old. I do not have to take this as a final decision. "That's a good goal," I reply, allowing her to dream about what that would be like. I have more to say, but it can wait.

When I was young I too dreamed of being the best in the world at something. Then, I thought, maybe everyone would admire me. I did not want to be lost in the masses of people who are pretty good, but not the best. So much attention goes to the star, that I felt nothing short of fame would suffice. At my audition, I told the director of my high school play to cast me in the lead role, or not to cast me at all. He paused, then asked if I would like to be on the stage crew.

What I will eventually tell Molly is that there is a price for being the best at something. Sure, she can try to make the World Cup team, but to actually do so, she must make soccer her entire life. That means that as a teenager she won't have time to do much else, like piano, homework journalism, drama, dance, art, aikido, volunteering to help others, or even dating boys and hanging out with friends. She will have to go to bed early every weekend night in preparation for tomorrow's game. To be the best at something that millions compete for requires a single focus and results in a very unbalanced life.

Still, there are many who are willing to sacrifice everything else in pursuit of being number one. Most who make the sacrifices don't ever get to claim the reward. Perhaps you remember Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals swimming in the 1976 Olympics. But does anyone remember the guy who came in second in those seven races? He practiced the same long hours, shaved all the hair off his body, and thought of nothing else. And then he lost.

And what about the winners? Mark Spitz sacrificed his childhood and adolescence for his goal. Who cares about him now? I imagine just his friends and family. Just like you and me.

We must be careful about what we sacrifice in pursuit of being number one. Sometimes parents push their children really hard to win. It is with the best intentions that we want our children to succeed. But parental pride may also spring from our own sense of inadequacy. We may want our children to succeed where we have failed.

When we push our kids hard we sacrifice their sense of themselves as being unconditionally loved. This sets them up for a life where they always need to be achieving something, never content and relaxed with who they are.

I was pushed to succeed as a child. Now when I get some "free time" I run to my list of things to do. I live for the fleeting satisfaction of crossing something off that list. I need the touch of a hand on my shoulder and a whispered reminder that "free time" is time I can just be free.

The recent push in our schools for standardized testing has given parents and schools a new avenue in which to compete. State-wide and county-wide scores are posted on the internet and everyone can look to see whose school is number one.

The purpose of the statewide testing is to ensure that students are getting the academic education they need to be successful in life. The testing is helpful in identifying which schools and which students are testing below grade level and need extra help.

This purpose is distorted, however, if schools compete to see who can churn out the very highest scores. To be the best, most students must perform well beyond their grade level. Accomplishing this developmentally inappropriate task requires so much focus on academics that the rest of our children's education and quality of life may be getting sacrificed.

Specifically, many schools are attempting to boost their scores by: cutting physical education, music, drama and art programs, standardizing all curriculum (which limits teacher's creativity and passion); focusing teaching on the topics covered in the SAT9 test (replacing poetry projects with spelling contests), strictly limiting field trips, and other measures to focus students solely on academics.

That's not what I want. When Molly is in fourth grade I don't want her to read like a sixth grader, if it means that she will not know how to dance, or draw, or sing, or juggle. I want her to feel like school is fun. I want her to play with her friends after school, not hurry home to do her homework. If she is meeting grade level expectations, that is good enough for me.

So I am opting out of this competition. I trust that Molly will be successful in her future career because of her passion and interest in her chosen field. I hope she does not feel driven by the need to be number one. It is a trap I hope we all can avoid.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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