Do men always have to win?
"I win! I win!" I could hear my six-year-old son's jubilant cry all the way from the other end of the house.
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"I lose! I lose!" My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter's response was equally as excited.
I knew yet another round of Hungry Hungry Hippos had ended in triumph for Alex, defeat for Natalie. Obviously, "the agony of defeat" had not sunk in for her. Then again, at two and a half she was just happy enough to be playing with her big brother.
As I talked about this with a friend, however, what struck us was the "maleness" of Alex's response, and, perhaps, the "femaleness" of Natalie's.
Research suggests that men come at almost everything from play to work to love from a competitive stance. Whether it's who wins the tennis match, who gets the biggest raise or who gets the most popular girl, men see things from a win/lose perspective. And much of our self worth is tied to winning a good part of the time.
Women, on the other hand, seem to focus on the relational process. Their understanding of "winning" has more to do with being involved in a positive way with other people. "You win/I win" is often the goal of women in relationships.
Certainly these are generalizations. Men can be relationally focused. Women can be competitive. However, there does seem to be a real difference here between the sexes.
Some theorists, of course, peg these differences to our genetic inheritance and basic biology. Male aggressiveness, for example, does have some biological roots.
Other theorists point to how we are raised. Certainly it is true that boys are thought to be more competitive, girls to be more cooperative.
My guess is that it is a bit of both -- biogenetics and socialization. But however we got this way, it can create some problems, especially as men and women relate with each other.
Now, an interesting thing happens as men get older. Many of us become more relationally focused, more cooperative and less competitive in our approach to people. Not all men make such a shift, mind you, but enough do that we talk about such a change in focus as part of a "male midlife crisis."
Actually, you'd be amazed at the number of middle-aged men -- from construction workers to corporate CEOs -- who wind up in a therapist's office trying to sort out how to better get in touch with the people they care about. After decades of playing, working and loving competitively, these men have realized the price they have paid; alienated friends, colleagues, wives and children. Older and wiser, they're ready to try something different.
To throw out one final tidbit, research in sports psychology, relational psychology, industrial psychology and so on suggests that cooperation usually works better than competition. "You win/I win" really does mean we all win.
Competition has been enshrined in our culture as one of our ultimate values. Maybe we need to rethink that. At the very least, those of us with sons need to help them understand early on that winning isn't everything. Winning, in fact, may ultimately be losing if we sacrifice our relationships in the process.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."