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A writer will do more or less anything to get his new book noticed, but there is a limit. For an interview to coincide with the publication of a story about a teenager who decides that he can improve on his frankly inadequate father and mother, I have been asked to look back, consider my own inadequacies as a parent and prepare to list them in public.
It is a tricky one. I could put in a call to my now-adult children but there are certain things one would prefer not to hear from one's nearest and dearest, even for the sake of publicity. In fact, come to think of it, the list would almost certainly be headed by a complaint about the way I have exploited them and their lives whenever there is some new book to promote.
Then an early silly season item came to my rescue. Country Life magazine has been asking 25 state and independent schools about their sports days. No less than 17 of them revealed that they had recently had to abandon the traditional mothers' and fathers' races after parents had become "over zealous". One event was abandoned after fighting broke out, apparently. At another school, a father had produced a pair of running spikes from his bag.
"Nowadays," says the magazine's editor Clive Aslet, "some parents have a highly competitive attitude to life and are neurotic about their children succeeding at everything they attempt. It is spoiling the whole thing."
It rang a bell, this story. I recalled, at my son's school sports day, experiencing an undeniable knot of tension as I lined up for the father's race; on my feet were some rather good trainers which I had happened to put on that morning. When I breasted the tape ahead of fatter, slower – and surely, in some indefinable way, less generally good – dads, I was inappropriately proud of myself.
It must have been a matter of small confusion to my son since, as a general rule, my wife and I took a gentle, Sixtiesish approach to childish competition. To win was fine, but not at any price. In fact, if you won in the wrong way, you had, in a very real and meaningful sense, actually lost.
Competitiveness is one of the great divides of child-rearing. At one extreme of the parental spectrum, there are the sharp-elbowed mums and neurotic dads whose children are coached to within an inch of their lives from the age of three, who pass every exam and have a career – usually in law or accountancy – mapped out by the age of 13. On the other hand, there are the hopeless and the feckless who expect little from their brood and often get it.
Most parents blunder along the middle way, taking a mixed economy approach to competition, being neither too ruthlessly capitalist nor excessively and sappily egalitarian. It is a difficult balance to achieve, particularly when the offspring of Mr and Mrs Pushy barge their way to the front, sometimes to the detriment of your own kinder, more polite children.
It is for the sake of the children that most sane parents play down their own competitiveness, fearing the effects that not winning will have on that other great priority of childhood, confidence. So you smile when your son's football team is awarded the league's Good Sportsmanship Award for a downright insulting three years running. When your daughter is eliminated at an early stage from the TV word-game Mallet's Mallet (and I still think that "cricket racket" was a perfectly good answer, by the way), you tell her that it was the taking part that mattered.
When the children of average parents emerge into adulthood, they are slightly competitive, rather keen to win things – a bit like us, in fact. The problem is that, in the outside world, the rights and wrongs of competitiveness are more hazy. A harsh ethic holds sway in which winners are rewarded and decency is ignored.
There are still a few gentle souls around who are prepared to take a kind, they-shall-all-win-prizes line. One, rather surprisingly, is the First Sea Lord who has decreed that the celebration at the Solent next week of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar should avoid mentioning the fact that Britain won – nothing less than "a great triumphalist gesture", in his view.
But outside the Admiralty and the administration of school sports days, winning at any cost has become accepted as a good, commendable thing to which to aspire.
So perhaps warning our children against the egotism of over-competitiveness was indeed a parental inadequacy. Maybe there is something to be said for inculcating an element of ruthless self-advancement in the young. Responsible parents may shudder at the words of the 15-year-old Bulgarian tennis player Sesil Karatancheva before she played the Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova –"I can kick her ass off," Sesil told the world's press – but they may also experience a twinge of jealousy at her brutally confident sense of her own worth.
Although she did not, in the end, kick Sharapova's ass off, her attitude, for all its vulgarity, will ensure that she is already preparing to win the first game of her next tournament. Somehow, I doubt that there were many Good Sportsmanship Awards on her family mantelpiece when she was growing up.Reuse content