“What place did you get?” I hear eight to 11-year-old children shouting this question to each other all the time.
I know that this is their way of communicating with each other at the end of a day when a cross-country race was the main thing on the agenda. I see kids from different schools who recognize the face of an old friend after the race. They run over and the standard greeting is always the same: “What place?” I cringe a little every single time.
I coach these kids and even I don’t ask them what place they finished in. I cheer for them while they race and I notice the level of effort they put in. I watch them finish and look down at the number on the little piece of paper they’ve been given. I can tell by their faces whether or not they’re happy with their result. Most of the time, I just say “Great job” or “Way to go, I’m proud of you” or in some cases “You were tough out there and you learned something for next time.”
Maybe they’re waiting for me to ask “what place?” but I can’t bring myself to do it. It feels like such a loaded question to me and I don’t have enough context to know what that child’s place in the pack means to him or her. Some kids are thrilled with 88, others are in tears with 13. I have a friend whose son’s goal was to NOT advance to the third meet. So there’s no point in asking if I don’t know what the goal was.
But this is one of the things I find refreshing about listening to kids talk. To them, it’s not a loaded question at all. Rather, it’s a straight-up, objective number. In fact, to them it would probably seem rude not to ask – as if they don’t even care about their friends’ performances. They always ask about the place too. No one says “How did it feel?” or “Are you happy with it?” or “What was your goal?” They just want the number. These are their social rules. I watch as the question gets flung around again and again, and no one seems put out by either. I have yet to heard one of these kids respond with “None of your business” or “I don’t want to tell.” Everyone shares openly and then goes and asks someone else.
I’m not sure when this changes but like most things, it probably happens gradually.
Kids learn that there are many layers behind what you see. Just as you shouldn’t ask someone how much money they make, your standard greeting right after a race shouldn’t be “What place did you get?” Trying to explain this to a kid is hard though. For now, I’ll just go about my usual tactic of trying to lead by example and hope they figure it out along the way.