Friday, November 14, 2008

On Competitive Families

The other day I was reading something about Rahm Emmanuel--not much; he sounds like a pretty big-time jerk, and seeing as I may already be in the homestretch of life and do not figure to be improved much further by reading about people whose dominant quality appears to be that they are jerks, I try to make it a point not to waste too much times on such pieces. Still, my attention was grabbed by the information that he is a product of a high-achieving family--doctor father, civil rights activist mother, one brother who is a molecular biologist or something like that, another who is a millionaire Hollywood agent--that emphasized competition and the idea that the purpose of life is not some fuzzy, weak pursuit of love or happiness or being nice, but to accomplish things far beyond the reach or ambition of ordinary men. Many prominent people are reported to have grown up in this kind of household: the Kennedys, Hillary Clinton (though in her case the exacting standards apparently only applied to her), the founder of the Papa John's Pizza chain. In such families the sons are expected at a minimum to maintain straight A's, win at sports, date the prettiest girls (with the Kennedys, "date" was replaced by a more explicit verb), and to always assume the leadership role over other boys in every situation. I used to wonder what would happen if a person like me who might be truly incapable of winning at sports or dating the prettiest girls should be born into such a family; would I have been disowned or banished, my name never to be spoken of again? But then I supposed that perhaps if I had been born and lived always among people who simply knew how to win and get what they wanted nearly all the time, and assumed these things their birthright, such triumphs would have seemed much more readily within my grasp. Also if it had appeared I might have issues with social awkwardness I might have been set up by my socially confident and important parents on things like tennis dates or been secured invitations to small tea parties where one or two appropriate young ladies would have the charge of entertaining me for the afternoon. The singer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers's father supposedly began providing him with girls and drugs when he was 12 or 13, and whatever one thinks of this method, it was certainly not long before the son was able to procure both of those things by himself without any problem.

In any event there is no doubt that the attitude of the parent plays a great part in creating favorable conditions for relishing competition as well as succeeding in it. There is also no doubt that it helps if the parents themselves have been in the long habit of succeeding and dominating the vast majority of their own peers in competitive endeavors, both to set an example for the children and for their practical knowledge of how to win at such levels where winning really means something. I am not completely sold on this approach to child-rearing as the optimal one, in any case; however, I also have three sons myself, and without some degree of aggressiveness one gets into a habit of losing and conceding to the more forceful boys everything you will one day want to have back--girls, games, jobs, leadership position, fields of study--before you really realize you have done so, and which once you have done so it is very hard to take back again without having to overcome--in effect kill--most of your real personality, which is on the surface no great loss, perhaps, but the effect on meeting people who have done something like this is very strange and unsettling. My wife, whose outlook on life is that of a popular heroine from a story out of pre-1945 America, believes that things like stability, a consistent quality and richness of minute by minute daily experience, competency in a variety of traditional skills and activities, examples of industry and virtue, even if humble, etc, will make one strong enough to contend on equal terms against people who have been driven and groomed to succeed more purely in the popular attitudes of the 2000s. I would certainly like to believe that this is true; I think in rare cases something of the sort can occur, and it is certainly an encouragement to go on in life when one comes across such a person who has attained excellent and beautiful human qualities through forces and practices and habits that seem accessible to one's self and one's own offspring. Can it realistically be said that this was ever the way of the world though?

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