Are Our Children Learning That Winning Is All That Matters?

Our society used to value ideas. Now it seems more interested in picking sides.

Posted Sep 19, 2020

There was a time in our country when children were taught about fairness and when integrity mattered. I remember hearing phrases as a child such as, “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” This type of thinking led to growing up with a sense of ethics and ideals that were consistent, whether they were to your benefit of not. 

This was the type of thinking that had people admit when they made a mistake and care about fixing it, even if only because it “was the right thing to do.” Children were taught about right and wrong, and how we are a society that values thought and innovation. The goals were about finding the best way forward, regardless of who came up with the idea. 

Schoolchildren learned in elementary school about the mistakes made by our country and how we’ve evolved as people over the years. We were taught about some of the truly awful things our society embraced at different times of our development. Everything from slavery to taking the land of the Native Americans was discussed in an effort to let schoolchildren know how much we’ve evolved since those earlier days of our republic. 

We learned about the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War and the McCarthy era, where people were branded as communists and blacklisted. We were also told that these behaviors were in America’s past and that we, as a people, had evolved from those times. We were now a more enlightened society and no longer tolerated these horrendous behaviors.

However, these days, it sometimes seems we haven’t really evolved all that much from the lessons of the past. Recently in our society, it seems less important who has the best idea, and more important who had the idea and whether or not they were “on our side.” We’re less and less a society of people who respect differences of opinions. Now, when we disagree with someone, it's not just their ideas we disagree with, it’s their very character that we question and often vilify.   

This may seem a harsh view of our society, but this view of reality plays itself out every day. If people think differently than we do, we often think it’s not only their ideas that are suspect; it’s the people themselves. Now when someone has a different point of view, it’s not enough to disagree with them; often, you have to vilify their very existence. Someone who has a different perspective is not just wrong about their beliefs; they are often a bad person. Even un-American. 

Our society was founded on the belief that there would be many points of view and many ideas. If our founders wanted uniform thought in the country, they would not have constructed the concept of a free press as one of the main pillars of the society. Unfortunately, these days our “free” press can often be as partisan as our politicians. The result is that people who have a certain ideology only watch news that is geared toward that ideology. That way, they constantly have reinforced that their beliefs are the correct ones and that everyone else is out to undermine their way of life. In this way, there’s no room for expanding their knowledge base, because anyone who doesn’t agree with them doesn’t get a clear voice in the reporting. 

This type of separation causes us to feel further apart from each other, as well as invalidate other people’s ideas. This also confuses children who have parents whom they overhear discussing that not only do people have different views, but views that are different from theirs are completely wrong and not even worth looking at. This leads to a society that no longer examines the issues on their merits. They just take what’s being said at face value if they are aligned with the person who said it. Children may not seem to be paying attention to adult discussions about news and their parents' attitudes, but they are hearing us.

In this highly polarized atmosphere, how do parents help instill a sense of ethics and morality in their children when society often sends the message that winning is the only goal? Where is fair play in the equation? Where is the openness to new ideas? 

Even the concept of objective facts is brought into question where we are told that facts we don’t like are “fake.” Our children hear the news. Our children pay attention to our discussions, and our children pick up on the way we see the world. How are we communicating in our families and with our children? While America was never the fully evolved society that we may have learned about in grade school, it was presented as a society with an optimistic view of the future. That seems to have been replaced by deep distrust and fear of our government and people who have different ideas of the world than we do.

Unfortunately, with all of the divisiveness and disrespect shown to people with different beliefs currently in our society, children and adolescents may be getting the message that the best idea no longer matters. What matters now is whose team you’re on. What matters is that you win over the people who have different beliefs than you do. This could lead to a new saying for future generations, such as, “It no longer matters how you play the game, just as long as you win.” This is a dangerous way of thinking to pass onto our children, and it can erode the basic decency and compassion of our society. 

If people can only respect and accept those who already think like they do, they are limiting themselves and society as a whole. This can lead to continually recycling old beliefs and patterns and not discovering new and potentially innovative ways of thought. It is important for children to understand that the strength of our society comes from its diversity of thought. Different points of view are not the enemy. They can help create innovations that strengthen our society and help it move successfully into the future.