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Siena had a Halloween horse competition last weekend. Yes, I know that Halloween was over weeks ago but schedules are flexible here in Colombia. No matter, Siena dressed up as a singer (everybody started calling her “Shakira”), dressed up her favorite horse Pluto as a hula dancer and had a good time.

That is until she got second place, losing out to her friend. She was really upset and I started to wonder – what’s the purpose of having places with young children? One person feels great (the winner) and everybody else feels like a loser.

I know that it’s a very American concept that kids need to have their self-esteem bolstered by all being winners. Many cultures, in fact most cultures, think that’s hogwash. “In life there are winners and losers and not everybody can be #1. The sooner kids learn this reality, the better,” they say.

We Americans, on the other hand, tend to want to protect our kids from the harsh realities of life. We believe that if they are all winners when they are young, they will have strong self-confidence and then be able to do whatever they want to do (and compete!) as they get older. I have to admit that I subscribe to this theory.

I wrestled with this issue as I looked at the dejected faces of a group of 4 and 5 year olds who had just been told their places, numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. “You should say something,” said my husband. “They don’t really get the impact of what they are doing here. What is the use of telling a four year old who has just started a sport that they are number 4?”

I felt the same way but I was slightly embarrasses to go talk to the competition organizer. I know her well and she is really nice but something has changed in me in the past 15 months. Whereas I arrived in Colombia with well-formed ideas and opinions and let’s face it, with a bit of American superiority, I now feel embarrassed by this. Who am I to say what is right or what is wrong? This is a completely different culture after all.

That said, when I saw Siena’s dejected, ashamed and angry face after she lost, I quickly got over my embarrassment. The competition organizer saw that Siena was upset and came over to ask what was wrong. So I told her. She was very apologetic. “Our intention is to have fun and to help kids learn and improve. We want this to feel like one big family,” she said.

I told her that I know that she put a lot of heart into organizing this event, but perhaps next time they can just give all of the kids ribbons, tell them what they did well and what they need to improve on? She thought this was a great idea and then apologized to all of the parents.

I appreciated her openness and also felt a little uncomfortable. Am I exporting my American values? Definitely. Who is to say that I am right? I don’t have the answer.

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