Let's Stop Telling Children to "Get Ahead"

But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me,
and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God."

Luke 18:16 ESV

“Get ahead” seems like such an innocuous phrase. It is such a mainstay of our culture we don’t even think twice about it. Often, the most frequent reason children are given for why they need to study, work hard, or do what they are told is so they can “get ahead.” But if we just stopped for a second to analyse those words, we would realize there is a cold and violent root to that expression: leaving others behind.

The Divergent Hunger Games

The words we use reflect the heart of our culture, and “getting ahead” is certainly a pillar of our society. If you look at the stories young adults tend to relate to, they are all very violent stories about competitive social cultures. In other words, young people feel like they are born “worthless” and have to fight to gain value in the eyes of the adults around them. While hyperbolic, The Hunger Games and Divergent are very real examples of how young people are feeling.

“Get Ahead” Implies a Brutal Competition

There is a lot of hidden and emotional baggage given to a child when they think they have to “get ahead.” Not the least of which is an idea that they are in a kind of brutal competitive race with their peers. “That’s right little Johnny, if you don’t do better than everyone else, then they will just drag you down.” It creates an immediate sense of fear and animosity on a subconscious level. I often wonder if this a big reason bullying and cruelty is so common among children.

“Get Ahead” Implies Success is Only Possible Through the Failure of Others

On the topic of competition, yes, in sports you only win if someone loses. The problem is that we are learning more and more that succeeding in real life means you succeed alongside others. Lifting others up and investing in the well-being and success of those around you will bring much more reward than working to defeat everyone. When we grow up with the pressure to “get ahead” we aren’t looking for ways to help others, we are looking for ways to defeat others.

“Get Ahead” Implies Superiority Over Our Fellow Man

The ultimate end of “get ahead” is the heart of slavery. It is the belief that if we are rich and successful in life then we must just be better people than those who are poor. It is the belief that those who have deserve it, and those who have-not deserve nothing. It is how we tell ourselves that if we are fortunate enough in life to climb to the top, we should feel no obligation to those we climbed over and around. It means that, in our hearts, we are OK with some people living at the service of others.

Instead of “Get Ahead” Let’s Tell Children to Work Together

I have heard some people theorize that children are inherently cruel when they are immature, I am not sure I believe this to be true. Watching my own children grow up, I would argue they seem equal parts competitive and compassionate. I think we have an option which side to nurture. Children should not be conditioned to feel good when they best another, but rather to feel a sense of responsibility to help each other based on strengths and weaknesses. 

What We Mean is Not What is Heard 

I expect that almost any parent reading this who uses the phrase “get ahead” does not mean it to carry so much baggage. I realize that most parents are just well-meaning and want the best for their children. Nevertheless, it is critical to examine our own backgrounds and ask ourselves “is the world we grew up in the same one we want our children to recreate?” Yes, many of us had to “survive” into adulthood, but maybe our children can thrive instead.

but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck
and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Matthew 18:6 ESV