“What place did you get?” I hear this question being shouted to each other by 8 to 11 year olds all around. It is their form of communication at the end of a day of cross-country racing. I see kids from different schools who know each other and haven’t seen each other in a while, and their standard greeting is “what place?” I cringe a little each time. I coach these kids and I don’t even ask them what place they came in. I cheer for them as they are racing and can see the level of effort they are putting 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 they are happy with their effort and the result it garnered or not. Then mostly I just say “great job, way to go, I’m proud of you” or in some cases “you were tough out there and you learned something for the next one”. Maybe they’re waiting for me to ask “what place?” I just can’t bring myself to do it because it feels like such a loaded question to me and I don’t have enough context. 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 it means.
But that’s one of the things I find so great and funny and refreshing about kids. To them, it’s not a loaded question at all: it’s a straight up objective number. In fact, to them it would probably seem rude and like you didn’t care if you didn’t ask. None of them asks, “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 it at all. No one says “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. 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 after a race shouldn’t be “what place did you get?” Trying to explain this to a kid is hard. I’ll just go about my usual tactic of trying to lead by example and hoping they figure it out along the way.