For the last two weeks I have been busy reacquainting myself with math, as I help our 12-year-old daughter prepare to take an entrance test for her senior school. (In the UK where I live, there is no guarantee of decent local schooling, no matter where you live. Children have to pass tests to get into the better schools – state or private.)
The need to parade a familiarity with all this fairly useless knowledge has got me thinking a good deal about the main thing that we are teaching our children about the social contract when we force them to compete with each other for places in schools – or indeed anywhere else.
The playground battlefield
I was a guest speaker on a teleseminar called Women on the Edge of Evolution the other week, which had been prompted by a comment by the Dalai Lama that the future of the world will be led by Western women.
My initial response on this teleseminar was incredulity. In my experience, Western women are learning to as competitive and cutthroat as men and their battlefield is essentially the playground.
As the mother of two children, I find more competition between mothers than I do in most boardrooms. In many instances, the social exchange is tainted with a distinctly mean-spirited or competitive edge, laden with a large sprinkling of schadenfreude.
Which school has your child gotten in to? How many children do you have? What’s your kid’s university grade point average? Where, in other words, do you/your spouse/your offspring fit on the social ladder?
I often remain blissfully tone deaf to social competition, largely because my foreignness — an American abroad — means I never quite catch the full nuance of the distinctly underwater means of communication unique to Britain.
Once, when I was invited over for tea by the mother of my then 5-year-old eldest daughter’s best friend, she spent a good deal of time inquiring after what we did on our weekends. I painstakingly catalogued the usual list of jolly inner-city leisure activities — trips to museums, afternoons at the park.
When I relayed the conversation to my British husband later, he patiently decoded for me that this exercise was meant to pinpoint where we stood on the social strata by ascertaining whether or not we owned a second home in the country. (We don’t.)
But other times the competitive edge is anything but coded. Many years ago, while I was still grieving after a miscarriage, one acquaintance with four children turned to me and noted matter of factly, ‘So this is the second one, isn’t it?’
And one of my better friends, also pregnant, who’d initially called to offer condolences, ended up explaining why she’d now opted to take a hormone: ‘I want to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to me.’
Perhaps the greatest rending of the social fabric has to do with our scarcity mentality when it comes to our children. Any success for your children is somehow perceived as a lessening of my child’s chances.
At a party a few years ago, we were asked about our eldest daughter’s college plans, and mentioned that her first choice was one of the top universities in England. I noticed an awkward silence and covert glances being exchanged, as if to underscore that this was a reach that surely exceeded her grasp.
That’s the university she’s attending now, but I can count only a very few mothers who could, with an honest heart, extend their congratulations. A place for your child means one less place for mine.
And now, as most of my 12-year-old daughter’s friends prepare to take entrance tests for a variety of schools, the school gates are awash with scuttlebutt about which are the better or worse schools and therefore which are the better and smarter children – information that eventually filters through to the children themselves.
Competition on the playing fields
Inevitably, this kind of competitive academic edge begins to creep into the social relations of our children. Last year, a 12-year old girl misrepresented her position in netball (England’s version of female basketball) to take over the place usually inhabited by my daughter – one of her best friends.
As I attempted to raise this tactfully with her mother, she shrugged her shoulders. ‘Well, that’s life, isn’t it?’
All’s fair in love and war.
The effect of all this competition is extraordinarily corrosive. A recent study showed that the most depressed group of people in the British population are teenaged girls; more than one-third feel high anxiety from the need to compete for beauty, slimness and grades.
A loss of empathy
What now seems to be lost in modern femininity is that quality we’re supposed to embody: empathy. In our creation of a competitive society, we appear to have lost that special ability to tune into another – to move beyond the sense of self and take the other’s perspective.
Psychologist Tania Singer of University of Zurich studies empathy and which portions of the brain are activated by a variety of feelings. Recently Singer conducted an intriguing study examining neural activity through brain scanning of 32 volunteers after they’d participated in a simple psychological game called Prisoner’s dilemma.
The game is meant to test our response to fairness, because it allows its players either to cooperate for an equal portion of money or to double-cross their partners for a larger individual payout.
Unbeknownst to the participants, Singer had engaged two actors as the opposite players. In the game, all the volunteers played the first round, and gave their partners money.
The actors responded either by returning high or low amounts of money – so one played fairly and the other unfairly. After the game, the participants were placed inside an fMRI scanner while they watched their two partners in turn each receive a painful shock through electrodes attached to the hands.
Both men and women showed neural evidence of empathy toward the fair players. However, men not only had a reduced empathetic response when they saw unfair players getting shocks; but they also experienced increased activation in the part of the brain connected with rewards.
They were actually enjoying the experience of revenge and favoring physical punishment of those who’d got the better of them.
For the men, empathy occurred only in the context of tit for tat: ‘I’ll scatch your back. . .‘
But for the women, they innately wanted to turn the other cheek. Their neural hardwiring for empathy lit up, even for the people who’d cheated them.
But if this is the case — if women may have more of a developed sense of empathy — in my view our societal creations we have created now wrings much of the drop of human kindness out of us.
Until we recover that ability, we will not be able to evolve. When we can all stop being pit bulls with lipstick we might get somewhere.
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