Run, Girl. Run.

“You get that girl! You get her! You get her!”

They look forward to the relay all year. They practice, both in PE and at recess. They challenge each other whenever they get the chance. They time their efforts, marking seconds off their finish. They trash talk and brag–all in good fun, mostly, because they are all friends, but make no mistake, this is serious. They will congratulate each other at the end, once they have all crossed the finish line, but everyone understands that from the moment that whistle blows until the last runner crosses the line, this is war.

When the day finally arrives, my husband and I stand on the wet grass as the 3rd graders finish up. Our daughter’s class from last year is in third place for most of the race until the last runner explodes off the starting line like a cannonball. They end up winning. The crowd goes wild. They are still celebrating as the coach and classroom teachers line up the 4th graders. Our kid was nervous all morning, but I can tell she is over it now. She likes to win. She is fast–she ran the mile in 7:23 the week before, so I expect her to be toward the end, but she’s the second runner, and when it’s her turn she maintains the first place slot set by her teammate with no problem. Who am I to question strategy? In the end, though, a runner from one of the other two classes widens the gap and it never closes. Her class takes second, by seconds. The winning class celebrates exuberantly. Off to the side, her racemates crowd together, chant some sort of cheer from inside their huddle, and then disperse to congratulate their friends, so that there aren’t three classes anymore, but a huge group of 4th graders high-fiving and commending each other on a good race.

And it was a good race. Except. Except, no matter how many times we parents find ourselves on a sideline watching our kids compete, no matter how clear it should be that we are watching children run or shoot or swing a bat, that these are kids we’re shouting for and about, we bring our baggage with us and we dump it right in the middle of the field, and try as they might, our kids trip over it and pick it up and carry it with them into their competition. Maybe not this game. Maybe not this day. But rest assured, you’ll see it again, your bias or your bad attitude, strapped to your baby like a quiver full of arrows, ready to strike. The question is, will you understand how they came to possess it? Will you shake your head, shrug, and struggle to understand how your kid came to be such a bad sport? Or will you laugh and say, “That’s just kids being kids”?

***

My daughter started participating in organized sports when she was three years old. YMCA soccer, gymnastics and dance at the Little Gym. Eventually she would play church league basketball, and for a week or so in 2012, she was on a local swim team (but that’s a story for another day). A little over two years ago, as winter basketball season neared its finish, she told us on the way home from a game that she didn’t want to play basketball the following year. She told us she wanted to focus on soccer. That was our cue to research the next steps of youth soccer, and we settled on the club whose home field was just a few miles from our house. That was two year-long seasons ago, one academy and one U12 classic. She’s currently in the middle of the third year with the club, and much has changed since that first U4 experience at the Y seven years ago. We’ve watched our kid evolve into a real athlete, with quads and speed and skills we had no idea she possessed. She has a passion for the game and field instincts that serve her well. She plays smart, and she never ever quits. But the part of her game I’m most proud of is her attitude: she helps people up when they fall, even when they aren’t on her team, and she doesn’t name-call, and if a teammate makes a mistake she encourages her instead of calling her out. And when she encounters bad sportsmanship, she is never short on opinions about the matter. They can be summed up nicely in a single statement, which I’ve heard her say almost verbatim: It’s fine to get mad, and it’s fine to be aggressive, but it’s not okay to be mean.

We see mean a lot more often as she moves up in age and rank. Last fall half of my daughter’s team ended a game in tears because not only the other players, but also their coach, were audibly making fun of a few of her teammates. At a game last spring, multiple players on an opposing team were putting their hands on her teammates, grabbing jerseys, arms, and one time, a handful of hair. I watched a little girl attempt to throw my daughter out of her way by planting a hand on her shoulder and pushing, and then as she ran past me, she looked me in the eye and said, “I didn’t touch her,” because she’d heard me appeal to the ref. And at an out-of-town tournament at the end of last season, we were warned by two other coaches about the last team in our group play schedule. They had a reputation for dirty play and mind games, and had apparently called opponents in their first two games names on the field–names like “bitch” and “skank.” During that game, one of our players went down with an injury, and as our team took a seat on the field, the other team ran to the sideline for water and a huddle. They were called there by their coach. Incredulous, I said (probably too loudly), “Are you kidding me?” and a parent from the other team, who was loitering on our end so he could coach his daughter the keeper, responded: “As long as they don’t leave the field there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but there is definitely something wrong with that. Because when long-accepted conventions of respect and sportsmanship, like taking a knee when a teammate or opponent is injured, begin to fall by the wayside, where do we draw the line? Before you tell me why “taking a knee” is frowned upon in field sports due to potential cramping and injury, let me assure you that the literal knee-taking during injury stoppage is not the issue. They can sit, or squat, or lie down, or even stand for all I care, but they need to stay put. It sends a message of respect, and that, much more than ball control or corner kick accuracy, will serve them later when we parents are not lined up 6 feet away watching their every move. They are learning who to be from us, and if we are okay with them stepping over the other team to go get some water, or pushing and shoving during a game, or petty name-calling on and off the field, all in the name of winning, then we are teaching them the wrong lessons. And if you don’t agree–if you think kids will be kids, and I should just lighten up–then you’re just making my job harder, because I know game etiquette is just the beginning. I know sooner or later I’m going to have to talk to my daughter about much bigger things she encounters in school and in the world, things about marginalization and disenfranchisement of particular groups in our society, things about tolerance and kindness, and lord help me, things about acceptable behaviors between the two genders. And I am not referring to “the talk” and when it’s okay to hold hands with that cute boy in her homeroom.

Which brings me to the relay race.

***

I am a diehard sideline parent. I love to watch my kid play, or run, as the case was at 4th Grade Relay, and I like to document, so you will find me as close to the action as I can get without being in the way. I was standing next to some students from one of the rival classes when a lady walked up and stood behind them. She was encouraging them to cheer for their runners, and then she looked at me and asked if I had a runner in the race. I told her I did. She asked which class, and I told her, and she said, “Oh, well. They’re gonna lose,” and we had a laugh, even though I’ve been watching youth sports long enough to know she might not have been joking.

She wasn’t.

The race started. The first runners made their way around the little track. My daughter was up next and I pulled out my iPhone to record her run, and that is how I can tell you with perfect accuracy what the adult woman standing next to me said to the boy my kid smoked on her relay lap:

“Go boy! You get that girl! You get her! Don’t you let that girl beat you!”

And then as their lap ended, she shook her head and said, “I can’t believe he let a girl beat him. He could have got her at the end. He just slowed down too much at the end.”

Sorry, no. I was there, and I can assure you that he could not have. He was “slowing down too much at the end” because he was tired from trying to keep up with my daughter for the other 98% of the lap. She outran him, and he was spent. But let’s talk about why that was a problem for my sideline friend. If he had lost to a boy would that have been okay? Was this mom/aunt/random bystander concerned that the kid’s masculinity might be at stake because he could not outrun a female?

The assumption that men are better at things than women is a tough hill for me to climb most days. Why do men have to be better? Why not just different? I don’t want to talk about fragile egos and the deep-seated need for power. I don’t want to talk about traditional roles and a woman’s place and scientific research that supports gender strengths and weaknesses. Not because I don’t want to get into delicate or controversial issues, but because I think all that is bullshit. The truth is, some people are good at some things and bad at others. When you bring gender—or race or culture—into it, you are muddying the water unnecessarily.

Let me interrupt myself to address any dude reading this right now who is already composing a comment along the lines of, “Well, women are better nurturers than men, are you going to say that’s not true?” Yeah. I am actually. One of the most nurturing human beings I’ve ever known is a man. He was my writing professor at Elon 20 years ago, and he got me through one of the toughest seasons of my life. One of the least nurturing people I’ve ever known in my life was a female principal I worked for a few years ago. And when the #metoo trend cranked up again recently in the shadow of Hollywood’s rampant sexual misconduct problem, I added my hashtag to the million others, but it wasn’t a man who forever altered my life, it was a bully in a leadership position who also happened to be a woman. I’ll say it again: we are all people, and we all have different strengths, weaknesses, and issues.

All of this brings me to my original point.

***

Every day I’m faced with the challenge of parenting a daughter and a son. I am constantly aware of the language I use when I talk to them about success and defeat. My son is only three, and he is just becoming aware that gender is even a thing. Someday our conversations will become much more complex as I help him find his own strengths without feeling the need to diminish someone else’s. But my daughter has already started to catch on, and she is not here for it.

A few times since she started playing club soccer, her team has scrimmaged a boys’ team during practice. They’ve won a few and lost a few. She says the boys get mad and start fouling when the girls beat them to a ball or score on them. What do you do when that happens, I ask. She looks at me like I’ve asked a stupid question. “Same thing I do in any game. I press harder and run faster.” At school she participates in a robotics club and a book quiz bowl team; both groups include many of the same kids. She tells me one of the best robotics programmers is her friend Katerina. She also tells me the second-best reader is a boy in her class named Mac (she assures me SHE is the best reader, of course). I like to think she is sizing people up based on their output and not their gender, because someday someone will probably try to tell her boys are good programmers and girls are good readers, and I want her to remember Kat and Mac.

We live in an age where women hold some of the most powerful positions in world politics, professional sports, business, entertainment, but boys are still being encouraged to “beat that girl” at the 4th grade relay, and girls are still being told to stick with the arts and humanities and stop worrying about the glass ceiling. What a disservice to both girls and boys. People with much more expertise about gender issues than I possess have written far better essays about coating our kids with the slime of our hang-ups, so go find their work and read it. I’m just a mom who fully intends to raise good, kind people who are confident enough in their gifts to win skillfully and lose gracefully.

I’m not perfect, but sometimes I hear my diligence come to fruition in my daughter’s words in the most subtle ways. She told me recently that the endurance pacer run test is coming up soon in PE, and she’s looking forward to it because she has topped her grade every year. Why is that, I asked her casually, already knowing the answer, and she replied, “because everyone else starts out running too fast and then they run out of energy. I just run at the same pace the whole time.” Not all the boys. Not the other girls. Everyone else. That is exactly where I want my daughter to be: on a scale with everyone else. Because someday when the stakes are way higher than a 4th grade relay race and someone says, “don’t you let that girl beat you,” I want my daughter to roll her eyes and know that if she doesn’t win the race or land the job or receive the award, it won’t be because she’s a girl. Not really. It will be because someone else was more qualified. It won’t matter that your grown son tells her he’s better or stronger or faster. If I have done my job, she will look him in the eye and say, “Care to race again?” And if she has paid more attention than I’ve realized, she will say under her breath, “Jerk.”


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