It’s okay to be the best at something

2011-02-16 00:00

“ANNA,” I said to my pink, frilly, three-year-old daughter, “you were by far the best dancer in that ballet class.” Anna had been waiting a year for her first ballet lesson and every part of her face smiled at the compliment.

But it was short-lived.

“Mom, you’re not allowed to say that,” five-year-old Joah exclaimed. “Anna is not the best dancer. You can’t say that one dancer is better than the other. You’ve got to say that they’re all as good as each other. Or you’ll hurt their feelings.”

It was a passionate argument, and I decided to test its strength against my husband that evening.

“Where did Joah get that idea from?” Sam asked in horror.

“From lots of things,” I answered. “It’s a pet theme in children’s books, DVDs, and any kind of educational curricula at the moment.

“Haven’t you heard his Grade R computer program? No matter what paint he splotches on his screen picture, the same sweet voice just keeps on saying: ‘That looks great. I like your colours. You’re a true artist.’

“What’s that going to teach him,” we agreed, “except that no matter how poor his performance really is, there should always be someone gently saying, ‘You’re a true artist’?”

I resolved to do hand-to-hand combat with this lie. If all Joah ever wanted was to be told that he was as good as everyone else, if he never thought that anyone could really rise above the pack and be the best, it could only result in a life of mediocrity.

“Look Jo,” I said, “that’s not the way this world was made. Some people are good at certain things and some people aren’t. We can’t pretend everyone’s as good as each other just because we don’t want them to feel sad.

“And, when someone’s better than everyone else, there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out. Anna held her head high, pointed her toes and pulled all the right faces. She was the best dancer. But,” I reassured his sensitive heart, “I’m sure those other dancers are good at something else.”

A few days later I decided to reinforce my point by telling Joah that he was, by far, the best picture cutter in the whole Groves household. To my surprise, he graciously agreed.

“Jo,” I said, “is it okay for me to say that?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“Hmm, now why is it okay to say that you are the best picture cutter, but not okay to say that Annie is the best dancer?”

“Because,” Joah replied, as he concentrated carefully on his scissor technique, “I really am the best picture cutter.”

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