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Columns | Fall 2015

Thoughts to Chew


Artists who perform music for families and children don’t seem to compete with each other. I see lots of collaboration and cooperation, but not much competition. When we see another performer do something neat and different, we don’t say “I could do that better!” We say “Ooo! I’d like to do that!” We know it’s not about “better”; it’s about finding more tools for our toolbox. We share our information and ideas, and for me, that’s a form of positive social behavior, or (dare I say it?) socialism!

Socialism is a label, of course, a noun that roughly describes some person, place, or thing. I’m not a big fan of labels because they can get stuck to us, and we can get stuck using them. They often stop movement and growth because when something is labeled, it can be easily dismissed. We’ve all heard that “winners never lose” and “losers never win,” but if we understand the process of how winners win and losers lose, then we have clues about how to help ourselves and others get to where we want to go.

Mostly in our culture, when we compete, we compete against others. I don’t think children’s artists think that way. Some artists say we compete with ourselves, comparing our new work with what we’ve done in the past, trying to better our performance by making something more beautiful, ingenious, or layered with our craft. But we don’t need to use labels like good, bad, better, or best. Those are value labels that feed competition. They carry with them innuendo that “bad” ought to be avoided and “good” ought to be sought out. If something is labeled “better” or “best,” that means something or someone else is “lesser” or “least.” The problem with value labels is that they carry the opinion of the person or group who attached the label. Take Fox and Rabbit for instance. Fox thinks it’s a good day if he catches Rabbit, but for Rabbit, that’s a bad day. If Fox doesn’t catch Rabbit, it’s a good day for Rabbit, but a bad day for Fox.

Labels can limit our ability to find healthy ways to resolve our difficulties. For instance, people use the label “spoiled child.” I don’t use that phrase because when my brain hears “spoiled child,” it thinks, “when meat spoils, we throw it out!” We’re not supposed to throw children out, so instead of labeling a child with a word like “spoiled,” see what that child is doing that causes people to label them “spoiled”; maybe we can teach them some other behaviors to help them be more successful with getting what they think they need, and they won’t be considered “spoiled” anymore: “Tyrone is really upset that you grabbed that toy from him. He hit you because he was angry. If you want to play with a toy someone else is playing with, what can you do? You can ask him if you can play with it together. You can ask him if you can use it when he’s finished. You can find another toy and see if he’ll trade toys, or maybe you can just wait until he’s done and then play with the toy. If we try another way, you get to play with the toy you wanted and no one is angry, sad, scared, or fighting.”

Verbs give us a way to proceed, a way to solve a problem: play, ask, find, trade, wait, try. We can work with verbs. And we don’t have to use labels like “spoiled” or “good/bad/better/best,” which can be devastating and unnecessary when we compare ourselves with others. We all want to achieve our personal goals, but we can do that without having to “beat” someone else.

The Prize
by Peter Alsop
© 2001, Moose School Music (BMI)

My teammates cheer me through
“Get out there and win it!”
“We can take them! You can do it!”
But my heart’s not really in it.

If I win, what’s the prize?
Someone feels awful
You can see it in their eyes
If I lose, someone will say
That I can’t take the heat
So I don’t want to compete
I only want to play.

“There’s a lot at stake today!
Just try to do your best!”
Well, it’s no fun to play
With all this tension in my chest.

If I win, what’s the prize?
When someone feels beaten
You can see it in their eyes
If I lose, it’s just a game
But it’s incomplete,
And I don’t want to compete
And I forget just why I came.

Is it really that much fun?
They say the game was great
But even when I’ve won,
I still feel second rate.

No one’s really better
We’re all in this together
And if we stop comparing,
The world will be more caring
Then we all win.
That’s the prize
You can see it in our eyes.

When no one has to lose
Or buy expensive shoes,
And no one has to cheat
And no one takes the heat
If we stand together and we say
We won’t compete this way,
Because we all came here...to play
That’s the prize!

So where does this need to compete come from? We’ve used many different systems to organize ourselves in society. Systems tend to maintain their similarities, regardless of their size (individuals, families, organizations, societies, or global populations). We know that both problems and solutions in smaller systems are echoed in larger systems and vice versa. We also know that competition feels unsafe and traumatic for most young kids, and we can see these same feelings and consequences play out in our global society, where people are forced to live within a competitive paradigm. If we understand a bit more about where this need to compete comes from, we might find ways to be less competitive and more cooperative.

Gender is one major influence on competition. Men’s brains have developed to be “on alert” for danger, problems, enemies ahead. Men’s brains also find wonderful solutions, but our male version of survival of the fittest has also programmed us with the ability to cut off feelings. Hence, we use more violent ways to intervene to achieve our goals. We are the ones mostly responsible for domestic violence; we do the mass murders. Men are mostly responsible for supporting our war economy, and we pay the price emotionally and mortally, as men are mostly tasked with carrying out the operations of war. Most little boys play with stick swords and make everything into a gun. We love to throw things. Some little girls do these things too, of course, but if we’re looking for ways to make the world more cooperative and less competitive, then the most fertile place to start is by addressing male behavior.

Our economic system is a second systemic influence on our need to compete. Capitalism, our predominant economic system, lauds the virtues of competition and continuous financial growth. Indeed, free market capitalism holds to the Darwinian model of a “survival of the fittest” economic world, but fails to factor in the social and environmental impacts and limitations of resources on our planet that we now need to address. Because of our huge population growth, our well-being and the actual survival of all life on this planet is affected by our economic decisions. We pay a price for our war economy, which is always framed as “the other guy’s fault.” That price is a depletion of the quality of life and the permanent loss of our nonrenewable natural resources. The ever-growing competition of our free-market capitalism is unsustainable and does not serve us well as we move into the future.

Our human drive to “be best” is something that we can alter once we understand that systemic gender and economic competition creates a more dangerous and less caring world.

So why bring this up to children’s music artists? Because like troubadours of old, who carried new information and ideas between towns, those of us who entertain and inform families and children have songs and stories that can encourage audiences to think about ways to improve or change what we do and how we do it. When we teach our audiences to focus on how we are all related to each other, rather than how we need to compete, we help change the system in which we live. We need to change our competitive paradigm if we want to survive as a species. Children’s musicians have skills in this area. We can use them to help others learn how to take steps toward less competition and more cooperation.

River of Life
by Peter Alsop
© 2014, Moose School Music (BMI)

We’re floating down the river of life together
Some float better than others, yes it’s true
Floating down the river of life together
You help me and I help you. (Repeat chorus)

We’ve been pulling babies up, out of the river
Helping kids by the thousands every day
As folks go floating by, we pull ’em up and get ’em dry
But every year the story stays the same.

Some say it’s been this way forever
Some say there’s just no hope, so why try?
Some blame men or fear or fate, some say it’s just too late
But I cannot sit here and wait to die!


So some of us went upstream to get to the bottom
Found a lot of folks who don’t know what to do!
Scared and lonely just like us, they don’t want to make a fuss
But there’s just too many cracks where kids fall through!

So we’re changing the way the story’s going
By teaching kids and families how to swim
Cause it’s really hard to drown, with everyone around
So we’re swimmin’ all together, jump on in! Now we’re…

CHORUSES (swimming/singing/dancing/swimming)

One by one, as each thread of our fabric gets stronger, the weave of our human society becomes more whole. The clearer we are with ourselves about these concepts in our lives, the more adept we become at passing these ideas on through our art. So please, let’s each try to think of ways we can do this more in our shows. When our cultural stories change, our behaviors change, and the benefits of living in more supportive ways becomes obvious. Then there are no losers. All of us are helped.