At a recent parents’ evening, 5yo Ramona’s teacher told us how seating our daughter with her best friend tended to improve her work. “There’s a bit of healthy competition going on there, which I admit I sometimes use to get the best out of them.”
Although it shouldn’t, hearing of competition between girls in a positive light does sound strange to me. I don’t think I’m alone in suspecting that women are raised to think that rivalry is negative – that it’s somehow incompatible with having each other’s backs, owning ‘squad goals’ and knowing where the bodies are hidden.
The thing about surrounding oneself with an army of intelligent, wonderful, interesting human beings is that at some point anyone with all but the most cast iron self-confidence will doubt themselves. I pride myself on having a particularly strong group of pals, each of whom fulfils a part of me that it’s more fun to share: working to make dreams and passions a reality, navigating a particularly sticky work situation, sitting in the cinema holding hands and crying. Each one of those women is astonishingly talented and beautiful – and if I’m totally honest I have a history of being the Fat Friend. Frankly, Peggy Carter might know her value but she had to prove it in a room full of men. Trying to blossom in my own right when I’m surrounded by an entire garden centre feels more challenging – and thinking of it in terms of competition makes me feel about as positive as a Japanese knotweed infestation.
As a result it’s easier to just shy away from it all. No one likes to look too keen; it’s even counterproductive, for how could I compete? Yet I can clearly see that in my daughter’s case, still blissfully free of hang ups and damaging mean girl narratives, a little friendly rivalry is proving good for everyone. When you strive to emulate each other’s strengths, you also pay tribute to them. Comparison can be the thief of joy, yes, but what could be better than being most inspired by the people you choose to be friends with?
In one of my daughter’s favourite films – the subtle and profound My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks – the essential conflict is caused by introducing the idea of competitiveness. A school musical showcase becomes a “battle of the bands” as some slinky sirens literally feed off disharmony. “What’s so wrong with a little competition?” purrs the leader, and the slanging matches begin. But in the end it is a competition that brings down the bad guys – an epic sing-off, in fact – and in order to do it the girls have to include a friend they’ve been inadvertently keeping at arm’s length despite her best efforts to atone for past cruelties. It’s easy to read it as ‘all competition is bad’, but it seems to me that the message is actually that winning is fine – provided you don’t get there by trampling on anyone, and you consider everyone’s strengths and not just your own (the good guys also have to acknowledge some self-centered and exclusionary behaviour among themselves).
At some point, my daughter will learn that other people will overtake her, and that she will have to make a decision whether to try, try again or change direction. It’s not easy to know whether you’re giving up too soon or flogging a dead horse; too much comparison can make A look like B, but too little and you end up as one of those people cruelly made a laughing stock on a TV talent show. At some point she’ll have to get used to the idea that other people will look up to her and – this is the tricky bit – accept this as valid. Suffering from imposter syndrome is not at all unusual among women, and I am certainly a veteran. I love that Ramona is getting the opportunity to stretch herself, and see where she can lead and where she can learn. She’s acquiring graciousness and generosity as she helps others with what she finds easy, and since humility is particularly hard to come by in small children I hope she’s learning that too. To genuinely congratulate a friend who has done better than you at something you care about is not easy; envy comes quickly. But it feels so much better and is so much more inspiring and hopeful than the alternative.
When it comes down to it, I want to believe that good things come to good people. And I honestly believe that a little genuinely friendly competition brings the kind of self-awareness and self-confidence that’s needed to act like a good person in the world.
And all I’ve ever wanted to do is raise a good person.