Why the Obsession With Competing?

11 07 2011

Up and down the country children and adults alike are fretting over school sports days. Sources of worry are diverse: will Jack be allowed to win every race again? Will Ruby’s trainers be up to scratch? Will Liam be able to stand the humiliation of losing? Are children being damaged by competitive sports days? Should there be a prize for everyone?

Our school Sports Day was firmly in the competitive camp. As a child, I was able to run at a perfectly reasonable speed unless it was a race, at which point I would go into slow motion, the ground would turn to treacle and I would barely be able to lift my legs. The notable exception to this was when racing my brother – a highly competitive and extremely undignified affair. Needless to say, I was last in every race at every Sports Day and Swimming Gala for my entire school career.

My parents were not amongst those who provided blue tack for the egg and spoon race or those who turned up with running spikes and mowed down Katie’s dad the year he was trampled in the fathers’ race, neither did they have me training for the sack race in the garden every night, while my mother looked on with a stop watch.

Read more on the Huffington Post…


Children’s Perception of Fame and the Media

3 06 2011

They have been running a short-story competition for children on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. The competition was open to anyone under the age of 13 and, encouragingly, there were over 30,000 entries.

As I was driving this morning, I heard the second place entry from the age 10 – 13 category being read out by Alexandra Burke. It is entitled Charlotte Johnson and was written by Kerry Maxwell, age 12. I was really impressed by it – please take the time to follow the link and read the story in full; it really is very good. I will be reading the other entries this weekend. The standard of writing is fantastic.

The story is about a girl called Charlotte Johnson who loved acting, dancing and singing, wanted to be world-famous and was waiting to go on stage at a local talent show. She went outside to get some fresh air and wandered off. A man purporting to be a talent scout pulled over to ask for directions. She got in his car to show him the way. I will let Kerry finish the story:

That night, at nine thirty, the whole of England knew Charlotte Johnson. By that time the next morning, so did the whole world.

Although Charlotte was not a dancer, or a singer, or a movie star, she had her own television programme.

It was called:

Charlotte Johnson: The Girl who never came Home.

What really impressed me about this story was that, although it was set at a talent show, it didn’t follow the hero(ine)-overcomes-obstacles-and-gets-fame-and-adulation-against-the-odds path.

While it may not be the case for Kerry, it seems that the quest for fame and adulation is high on the agenda for today’s children and teenagers. According to The Times (March 14, 2008):

Children are turning away from schoolwork because they see education as unhelpful to their ambition to become rich and famous as reality TVstars, a teaching union claims today.Their role models include David and Victoria Beckham and WAGs – wives and girlfriends of highly paid footballers – according to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.


Almost two thirds of teachers said children they taught aspired to be sports stars or pop singers. Many said their pupils sought to be famous with no discernible talent. A third of teachers said that Paris Hilton, the heiress and gossip-column fixture, was a favourite role model.

This trend has not just been noticed by teachers. In 2009, to mark the launch of Sky TV’s Watch channel’s series Tarrant Lets the Kids Loose, a survey was commissioned. According to The Telegraph (October 1, 2009), the survey was conducted by researchers asking parents of 5- to 11-year-olds to compare their childhood career aspirations with those of their children. Now, we all know that children’s career aspirations change quite regularly and that the parents are likely to give their more ‘sensible’ choices when questioned by a researcher; after all, who would say that they told their class teacher they wanted to be a clock when they grew up? It does, however, give us an insight into children’s current aspirations.

So, what are the top ten ambitions?

  1. Sports star (12%)
  2. Pop star (11%)
  3. Actor/ actress (11%)
  4. Astronaut (9%)
  5. Lawyer (9%)
  6. Emergency services (7%)
  7. Medicine (6%)
  8. Chef (5%)
  9. Teacher (4%)
  10. Vet (3%)

Is there anything wrong in this? Children move with the times. They want love and respect and that is their perception of celebrity. Perhaps they also believe that celebrities don’t have to do an awful lot for their money, or that they just do things that are fun. Many children enjoy playing football, singing, dancing, being in plays – why grow up and get a boring job when you can get paid for doing what you like?

Children will always seek role models; there is nothing wrong in that. What seems to have changed, however, is where they are looking for them. The majority of these children will not know a celebrity. They are not emulating people they know and respect for their actions and standing within the community; they are emulating the public faces of people they have never met and are unlikely to ever meet. What they are seeing is not the person so much as the PR.

While the advent of television and internet has had many positive effects, it has also completely changed the focus of people’s lives, not necessarily for the better. It’s as though we go about our daily lives with pairs of binoculars glued to our eyes: we don’t see what is close to us, in our homes and our communities and are looking out to a national and an international level.

According to The Times (January 21, 2009):

On average British children spend five hours and 18 minutes watching television, playing computer games or online each day. The total of 2,000 hours a year compares with 900 hours in class and 1,270 hours with their parents.

Our children spend more time inhabiting this world than they do the ‘real’ one and, because it is normalised at such a young age, perhaps they do not distinguish between the two. Lily Allen’s song, The Fear (see end of post for lyrics), hits the nail on the head.

There are loads of celebrities in the media, because they are a major focus of the media. As children become more focused on the cult of celebrity, so do media for children. After all, what’s published is what will sell. This is illustrated by a quick search for ‘Talent Show’ in the children’s section of Amazon.co.uk. What children are not being shown is that only a very small minority of ‘wannabes’ ever attain anything like that level of fame and they do not understand the consequences of following fame for the ‘wrong’ reasons.

If one sets out to be the best musician one can be and becomes famous as a result of that, great. If one sets out to be famous in order to satisfy a need for love and approval, one is likely to be deeply unhappy. People do not look on celebrity suffering kindly – more as a crowd of onlookers round the stocks or the gallows. Celebrities are not thought of as real people – through the glass of the television set and the computer screen, in the light of the idiot lantern, the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred. What is real? What is PR? In this era of docu-soaps and augmented reality, who knows? Certainly not the children.

According to The Guardian (April 17, 2010):

The number of child performance licences, issued by councils to pupils who miss three or more days of school per half-year to perform, increased, in five years, by 80%. At Stagecoach, the performing arts school franchise, student numbers leapt from 12,000 in 1999 to 36,000 today.

It is fine for children to have dreams, but we are doing them a disservice if we do not help them ground those dreams in reality and keep their expectations realistic. We should certainly not let them become so carried away by their dreams into the distorted world they inhabit that their education suffers. Dreams shatter, legs, voices and even minds break: everyone needs something to fall back on.

Further reading:
The Fear Lyrics

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and f*loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them

And I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless
Cause everyone knows that’s how you get famous
I’ll look at The Sun and I’ll look in The Mirror
I’m on the right track yeah I’m onto a winner

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear
Cause I’m being taken over by the fear

Life’s about film stars and less about mothers
It’s all about fast cars and cussing each other
But it doesn’t matter cause I’m packing plastic
And that’s what makes my life so f*ing fantastic

And I am a weapon of massive consumption
And it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function
I’ll look at The Sun and I’ll look in The Mirror
I’m on the right track yeah we’re onto a winner


Forget about guns and forget ammunition
Cause I’m killing them all on my own little mission
Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner
Now everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner


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