A recent BBC study showed that eight-to sixteen year old children see little wrong with cheating due to a ‘win-at-all-costs’ culture imposed by their friends and parents. Over a third of the 1,002 questioned said they felt no remorse when winning by cheating and a quarter thought their teammates would cheat if they could get away with it. Harmless as it may seem now, there is an uproar surrounding but quietly awaiting a study of the kind. In fact, I can already hear the feminist chant outside children sports clubs – “Today it’s croquet, tomorrow he’ll cheat on his wife”. Or the humanitarian groups outside nuclear stations with massive posters claiming – “No remorse in football today, no remorse in nuclear bombings tomorrow”. Even the Daily Mail could have a good go – “Children avoid real work from age eight. A vile product of the National Welfare system.”
The problem remains, however, that this won’t happen. And rightly so, the news is hardly shocking – society has developed slowly but certainly around a culture which does not reward talent, creativity or desert – it awards winning. Lots of it. People, hobbies, jobs, governments, sport, video games are all centred around a mind-numbingly simplistic yes/no binary which ensures you will be either loved or hated, rich or poor, a winner or a loser. In fact, it is rather upsetting that such culture is embedded in the youth from as early as age eight. Not merely because of the societal moral connotations – namely, that morality in the 21st century means cheating when you can get away with it. The problem will be most harmful to individuals. To the kid that never gets picked for the football team, or the one that always loses at basketball or the one that never really got the rules of cricket. Psychologically, there is no real reason to mentally condition a ten year old that winning in sport is an important achievement in life. Especially since it isn’t – the most you get is a tacky fake medal on a silly string, or a cheap glass plate for your parents to smugly display in the living room. In fact, in either case, statistically the child will probably lose more matches than he wins, therefore constantly assuming that he is underperforming or underachieving. It will be a self-perpetuating cycle of mild approval after a won tennis game followed by three losses; until he either loses all motivation and stops, or is motivated so extremely that achieving a point when winning becomes standard, but also meaningless.
Sports are just one thing which follows this kind of motivational pattern. And it is no wonder a head teacher recently told me that her son wanted to drop his fifth instrument, the clarinet, and so she had to sit him down and tell him that if he gives up the clarinet he will give up in everything in life. She essentially told him that if he fails at playing a useless woodwind instrument, he will end up a homeless alcoholic under a bench in the depths of east London. She also said he is doing much better now.
This tendency to idealise sport and musical ability, and any kind of winning and hard work is quite pivotal in modern society. Work, we are told, is good for us and we must do as much of it as possible (unless, that is, cheating is available). The problem that remains, however, very aptly outlined by Bertrand Russell in his ‘In defence of Idleness’ is that we are essentially taught to hate idleness up to the extent to which we cannot even enjoy leisure. Not that we have time for it anyway. But children do, so rather than breeding workaholics we need to let children enjoy the very few moments of blissful idleness in life, before it all goes downhill and you find yourself reading about twelfth century church reform in the library at two o’clock in the morning. Or is that just me?