In a game day, my son sits at the kitchen counter eating waffles and reading the sports section. Wearing a T-shirt and boxers, and a look of consternation on his face, John somehow seems older than 10.
"If we could be 3 and 3, or even 2 and 4 on the season - but 0 and 6?" he mutters, disgusted by his soccer team's record. "We stink. We really stink." It's not the moment for a lesson-in-life lecture, and I restrain myself from delivering one.
Where does his competitiveness come from? My husband, Sam, attends every one of John's games, but never coaches from the sidelines. If John complains to him about someone else's poor play or disputes a referee's call, Sam offers only encouragement. As a child, my husband never wanted to play organized sports, and his parents had let him make that choice, comfortably. Our son, however, is drawn to activities in which he excels, and where his accomplishment can be measured, irrefutably.
John has a mother, too: I am driven, and I like it when my work is recognized, though achievement as a triumph over someone else has never been my motivation. But as early as second grade, I figured out that the Robins were better readers than the Sparrows. If we were going to be ranked - well, then, I wanted to be a Robin.
John's competitiveness extends beyond the playing field. He argues with his sister about which movie the family sees, and whether we have pizza or burgers after the show. He sees every decision as victory or defeat.
"Turn off the scoreboard," we gently counsel. And then I wonder. Our advice runs counter to that of the world in which John must make his way. Everyone gets to play recreation-league soccer, but only the top players make the traveling team. A concerned parent tells us he's pulling his child out of the local high school because only 5 percent of its graduating class goes on to the Ivy League.
We live in a culture that measures - one in which ranking high secures, and falling short confines.
Are we misleading our son when we suggest that there are things more important than winning, if not to the world, then to the way he feels about himself? How long will it be before he understands that the benefits of participation far outlast the ego-boost of any single victory? And how can I expect my son to grasp the distinction when I, too, grapple with it whenever I choose differently from what our culture values?
It's a parent's job to try.
"There are things in life that matter more than winning," I tell him over consolation ice cream cones after his team's seventh straight loss.
"Like what?" John asks. We've been discussing why he cannot quit the soccer team, why it's important that he see the season through.
"Every week your skills are getting stronger," I tell him. "You and the rest of The Fury are discovering how to play together as a team. You're learning sportsmanship, too."
Silently, skeptically, he looks at me, then stares off into the distance.
"I know it's hard to lose," I say, suspecting that my pep talk hasn't registered. "But giving up soccer just because you haven't won a game would be worse."
SATURDAY rolls around, and again we watch our son on the playing field.
"Make a wall! Make a wall!" he implores his teammates when the opposing side - with seconds left to play in the game - is given a penalty kick. The score is 2-all. If John's team can block this kick, there's a good chance the game will end in a tie - The Fury's best performance of the season.
The kick is up. A wall of boys rises in midair. The ball sails over their heads - and over the goal, into the stands.
The game ends, and we celebrate. Gatorade and cupcakes. When the coach compliments John on how well he's played, he nods once, smiles, and accepts the praise like a veteran.
We walk across the grass to the parking lot. A teammate ambles alongside our son and asks him if he's going out for soccer next year.
"I don't know yet," John answers. "I have to think about it."
This is a new development. Is John's notoriously black-and-white view of the world showing its first signs of shading? His team finished dead last in the league and will see no playoff action. But it seems as if John will let more than the win-loss column determine his future.
I look at my husband, and he gives me the thumbs-up sign. The season has ended well.