By: Ted Peterson
It’s been understood in our house for some time that the way to motivate Mikey is to appeal to his sense of competitiveness. He’s not a morning person, and will remain under the sheets, eyes closed, resistant to gentle nudges and more forceful shakes, until you say, “Hey, I bet I can get to the bathroom faster than you.”
“Nooo,” comes the zombie-like groan.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m faster than you. I’m super fast.”
Eyes open. “But I’m fast like a cheetah!”
“I don’t think s-”
And he’s off, blankets and sheets flung aside, down the hall, jammie bottoms flying off in his wake. He has all sorts of things that he likes, movies, books, toys, music, but none of these will make him go from 0 to 60 mph like winning a competition. Mikey has no fussiness when it comes to his food, because the moment we say we don’t think he’ll like something we’re eating, he’ll plead for a bite and insist that he loves it. He likes to dance, but it became an obsession at a holiday party when some older kids were playing the video game “Just Dance,” and Mikey asked for a Wii remote so he could play along.
“I won! I won!” he yelled afterwards, fortunately oblivious to his actual score.
Now, I could point out that this behavior is totally in line with his age developmentally, but 90% of the stuff about developmental milestones is, I’m convinced, just an excuse for a different kind of competitiveness. That is, one of parents, which is clearly much less adorable. The fact remains that parents have long known that the best way to get a three-year-old to clean up after himself, better than chanting the horrible and ubiquitous “Clean it up, clean it up,everybody, everywhere” song from Barney, is to simply say, “Hey, who can get the most toys back into the box?” And then duck as the toys come flying.
It’s also probably worth pausing here to acknowledge the simple fact that competitiveness is historically considered a masculine trait, and therefore both desirable and encouraged. Not only by parents, but by the general public. I hope that should we have a daughter, we’ll be equally amused and indulgent when she wants to show off.
The best kind of competitiveness, of course, is the self-motivated kind. Sure, it’s effective when I declare some mundane activity to be a game which Mikey is inspired to win, but there’s twice the power when Mikey sees his friend doing something and becomes determined to master it as well. One evening, he came to us with a serious expression and said, “I don’t want to wear diapers to school anymore.”
And that was it. His friends were using the toilet, so he was too. Potty training more or less accomplished.
Today, we were pressing our code to open the door to preschool, and Mikey pressed the pound sign as usual as the final button to unlock it. One of his buddies came up behind us, and pushed in all the buttons himself. Once inside, we signed Mikey in on a computer using a passcode. Again, Mikey’s buddy, just behind us, punched the buttons on the keyboard, signing himself in. Two separate number and letter codes, and Jimmy knew them both.
Mikey whispered to us, urgently, “You have to show me how to do it too!”
And we will, and he will master it because in his mind, he has to.
That sorta touches on the negative side of this competitiveness. It can lead to an unhealthy peer pressure. And when something that’s not a good thing like getting up, eating healthy food, using the toilet, or learning numbers and letters becomes the object of the competition, it can be hard to turn it around. At Mikey’s school, there’s been some name-calling which they’re trying to nip in the bud. My friend Susan, who has a son Mikey’s age, says that at her school, a couple of the boys have been punching each other in fun – she calls it “preschool fight club” – and the habit shows signs of catching.
I don’t know where Mikey gets his own competitive spirit, but I hope that if it shows a dark side, we’ll be able to handle it. Actually, I know we will. Because we’re awesome. You know.