Kids have to lose occasionally

participation trophiesHad a fascinating conversation with my 8yo daughter K- while driving to her first ballet performance audition, about winning, losing and participation.

You should know that my children all attend a school that doesn’t honor winning a competition, but instead honors participation in events. No letter grades until high school, and everyone’s feelings are carefully nurtured so that they all feel like they’re a success, even if they’re the runner who dropped out of the race while everyone else sprinted to the finish line. Living in Boulder, this is a microcosm of the greater cultural zeitgeist of “everyone’s a winner” and I have to say it drives me crazy.

Back to our conversation…

me: “When you run a race, do you think the person who is fastest should be called the winner?”

her: “well, of course.”

me: “but if you didn’t win, would you feel bad?”

her: “yes, and I don’t like that.”

me: “so do you think everyone should be a winner, regardless?”

her: “maybe. I don’t want to feel bad.”

me: “well, when you grow up you’ll find that life is as much about losing as it is winning. You lose a chance for a better job, you don’t get tickets to a concert, you can’t afford to go out for dinner, you have a date with someone cute and they’re just not interested in you.”

her: “that’s no fun.”

me: “I know, but that’s what life is. Good and bad, all mixed together. So do you think never losing a race in school helps you learn how to handle not winning when you’re older?”

her: “not really. I dunno, maybe we should have winners and losers.”

me: “and learn how to deal with the disappointment of not being great at everything all the time?”

her: “yeah. I guess.”

And there, in a nice 8yo logic nutshell, is what most bothers me about a generation of children growing up with “participation awards”.  It boils down to… nothing.

When my 12yo son’s basketball team won the YMCA league championship last year, they got exactly the same generic 8″ trophy that every other boy in the league was awarded. It didn’t say “champions” or “first place”, it didn’t even have his name on it. And y’know what? He couldn’t care less about it. It means nothing to him and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day it just ends up in the garbage can.

Without significance, trophies, medallions, awards have no meaning.

Further there’s no drive to excel, to win, if there’s no benefit to having won.

A world of mediocrity where no-one’s a loser precisely because no-one’s a winner either.

It’s a well intentioned, but ultimately ungood path we’re on with this next generation. We need to have them lose occasionally, find out that there’s another child in class who, yes, is actually better at drawing, reading, math, running, basketball, gymnastics, a foreign language than they are. Life is about learning how to accept and get back up and into the thick of things after disappointment, not just shield our children from every bad thing that could befall them.

But maybe that’s just my skewed perspective…

11 comments on “Kids have to lose occasionally

  1. I was unaware of this shift to everybody winning until a few years ago. One of my kids was playing soccer for the first time, and they didn’t win a single game. But at the end of the season, they got their trophies – like you mentioned, the same trophies as the champs.

    And yes, those trophies are meaningless. They have become part of the deal with signing up for soccer – you get a shirt, shorts, socks, and a trophy.

    This bothers me.

    When I grew up, I collected a bunch of trophies for winning, but also had my share of heartbreaking losses. Those losses drove me to play harder, because I wanted to win.

    I really don’t get the concept of championing mediocrity. We need to teach kids to strive for accomplishments.

  2. As an employer of over 100 millennials each summer, I am the one dealing with the results of workers who are over-parented, not taught to wait or lose. There is a lot of re-training, and re-education about what a work place, what their place is, and how to be successful working with multiple generations who will not reward their every action.

  3. I completely agree, Dave. My son has been taking karate for 3 years now and is close to achieving his black belt. He’s gotten so much out of the experience, but the way they run the karate tournaments drive me crazy.

    In sparring and forms, every participant takes home some kind of trophy, no matter their performance. The winners’ trophies are much bigger than those for the last place finishers, but it still reinforces the idea that every time these kids compete, they should take home a prize. I know karate is supposed to build up self-confidence and self-esteem, but I really think this practice does more harm than good.

  4. You are singing the song I’ve been singing for years, Dave. This shielding our kids from the pain of losing is doing them a disservice because, as you pointed out, that’s not how the real world works when they get out into it on their own. In addition, it deprives them of that oh-so satisfying feeling of having busted your bazoo to win, and then actually winning–over all of the other contestants.! My speaking/training business is based upon the concept of going from “Mediocrity to Mastery” and fortunately or unfortunately, there are plenty of people who are just “getting” that this concept is an important one.

  5. In my kids’ T-ball league, when they’re still learning the basics of the game, they don’t keep score, there are no “winners” and “losers”, and I think that’s fine.

    Once they get to little league, and actually play something close to “real” baseball, they keep score, and they have “winners” and “losers”. Yes, every player gets a trophy at the end of the year, though each has the kid’s name on it. The difference from what you describe above is that there are records kept, team rankings, and playoffs among the highest-winning teams. There are special awards, and “real” trophies, for the winners of the playoffs. While we have a cabinet full of “everyone gets one” trophies, the “real” ones take their place front-and-center.

    Christopher Titus does a skit about his daughter’s soccer team, which is at the bottom of the league. (Including things like players staring off into space, or just skipping around the field.) At the end of the season, his daughter tells him he needs to drive her to the award ceremony. At first, he’s horrified at the thought that the league will force all the kids to watch the good players get their trophies. Then he’s even more shocked when he finds out that everyone gets a “participation award”.

  6. Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron sums up the social-equality-at-all-costs extreme. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy it. It’s in part a worst case scenario of trying to create level playing fields…My friend, who teaches math and science in the Dearborn Public Schools, got in trouble recently for asking the National Merit Scholars to stand up in class and be recognized. The principal asked her not to do it again because several students went home and complained to their parents about it.

  7. Amen. Well said.

    Not everyone is a winner at life. I don’t think we should purposefully make it hard on kids, but teaching them the value of working hard to win and how to lose gracefully is part of growing up.

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