Aidan Smith: When is it too early to awaken competitive instincts?

The line between being an aspirational parent and a pushy one really is a fine one, writes Aidan Smith

Youngsters are becoming involved in outdoor activities and sports at increasingly more tender ages. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Youngsters are becoming involved in outdoor activities and sports at increasingly more tender ages. Picture: Ian Georgeson

So there we were in Fife’s East Neuk on our summer holidays, my wife on the front of the paddleboard in her bikini and me on the back wearing nothing at all, just like the actor Orlando Bloom. I was padding masterfully, I was ignoring the pointing and laughing coming from the shore and I looked at my children crouched over the rock pools and I was happy.

“Darling,” I said to my wife, “isn’t this bliss? I’m so glad we decided on a staycation this year. Look at the flak David Cameron has copped for nipping off to Corsica. All those fortnights in Cornwall while he was in power were obviously a PR sham.”

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But then I had cause to hurriedly pull on my £225 designer trunks showing the super-chic Hotel Du Cap Eden-Roc in Antibes – yes, the same ones as Dave sported last week –and swim over to the rock pools. The Crail Festival crabbing competition was being judged and I wanted to make sure my son won.

Okay, I exaggerate for comic effect. We were indeed in Crail, there was a contest to catch the most crabs, but I wasn’t bothered about the outcome. It was a bit of fun, just like the putting competition, and it was the holidays. Competitive Dad was on vacation.

Is this me normally? It might be. I mean, obviously I’m nothing like the ferocious father in The Fast Show who challenges his son to a game of squash, sees no need to offer the boy a few points of a start and promptly thrashes him – then when the family are playing Monopoly, phones his lawyer to check on how to sue the lad for failing to meet his rental payments. But, watching my son on the football field for instance, I want him to play well, score the goals he netted in his dreams the previous night and, yes, to win.

Competitiveness is a good thing. It will set up a child for the challenges ahead. The world has gone a bit soft since encouraging competitiveness among kids seemed to fall out of fashion and certainly the Scotland football team has gone a bit soft since the everybody-gets-a-prize generation grew up. We don’t qualify for World Cups any more.

But problems can come when parents reveal this desire for their offspring to succeed, or reveal too much of it. The line between being an aspirational parent and a pushy one is as fine as the twine unfurled at the finish to the dads’ race on school sports day. No one wants to be seen as overbearing parent, over-burdening their kids with expectations.

Last week, the mother of the winner of Channel 4’s Child Genius came in for sharp criticism. Sonal, an obstetrician from London who didn’t disclose her surname and who put her career on hold to focus on her children’s education, objected to the general nature of a question to ten-year-old Rhea, gaining her daughter an extra point and a place in the final at the expense of another junior brainbox. Rhea eventually won the competition by successfully spelling eleemosynary (meaning charitable, of course – everyone knew that).

“Well done Rhea’s mum,” went one tweet, displaying a distinct lack of eleemosynary behaviour. “Swindled your daughter to the final. Your life’s work is complete.” Parenting experts slammed the show. Fears were voiced for Rhea’s mental health. But the Twitterstorm didn’t just blow one way. Others spoke up for Rhea’s parents, describing the criticism of them as “typical of the non-aspirational Brits”.

If I was a parent on that programme – and admittedly for either of my daughters to take part there would have to be fewer sums of the order of 14 times three, minus 16, times three, divided by two, plus 44 and more questions relating to dancetastic CBBC show The Next Step – then I would have been like Sonal, challenging decisions, rooting for my girl, wanting her to win. What’s wrong with any of that?

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If you enter any kind of competition you should want to win it. How disappointed was I that one of my daughters missed out on an honours pass in a ballet exam because, I learned afterwards, this distinction was usually offered to just one child and on this occasion it went to the only boy which ensured he had “the cute factor”? Very disappointed, but no more than my girl was.

My wife and I differ slightly in our attitudes to competitiveness. She thinks trying your best is the main thing; I agree with that in principle but worry it’s a quintessentially British viewpoint which invariably results in a runners-up spot at best. She’s English, I’m Scottish. Tim Henman (eternal semi-finalist) to my Andy Murray? I wish. She was head girl at her private school while, back in the days of class placings at my state primary, I announced to my mother that 21st out of 42 must have meant I was “half-good, half-bad”, only to be told with great gentleness that some improvement was probably required.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking: it’s being 21st in the class all those years ago which is driving me to drive my kids relentlessly onwards to higher achievement. I’m attempting to satisfy my thwarted ambitions through them. Well, I hope not. I’d like to think I’m supporting my children, like my mum did me, and when required cajoling them. There’s surely nothing wrong with the occasional warning that if you don’t stick in at school you might end up a journalist.

If my wife and I aren’t our kids’ champions, who will be? We’re already planning next summer’s return to Crail. By then our son will have his own putter; no need to hire a wonky-shafted one from the hut. And now we know that crabs love ham we’ll have sourced the finest air-dried variety from Valvona & Crolla. That should be both competitions in the bag, I reckon.