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Sport and Competition

Do We All Deserve Gold? Setting Kids Up to Fail

The debate over handing out trophies for just showing up.

Key points

  • In kids' sports, rewarding all participants with a trophy—win or lose—has become a trend.
  • Researchers note that acknowledging children's everyday achievements can have negative repercussions on their motivation to work toward them.
  • Self-esteem among young people in America has reportedly been rising, yet today's 20-somethings still struggle.

The singer and activist Harry Belafonte confesses in his new autobiography, My Song, that he learned a thing or two about raising kids. "I wanted to give my children all they wanted, all I hadn't had. In so doing, I may have deprived them of what they needed most: the grit and the tools to take on the world and make their own way." Surely, Belafonte, like most parents, wanted the best for his kids. But he rightly asks if it is best to reward them for just showing up.

I have been thinking of this issue, since Michael Coren, host of Canada's national news program Arena, asked me to comment on his country's new approach to kids' sports. He told me that instead of awarding first, second, and third place winners, all participants would soon be receiving trophies—win or lose.

Convinced this change stemmed from overly protective and narcissistic parents (or trophy makers who would win big by such a move), I answered, "I'm not sure this is good for Canadian kids or, for that matter, kids anywhere." I went on to talk about the pros and cons; awards can intensify competition, impact self-esteem, get parents too involved and add tension among coaches, but they also teach kids about winning and losing, about success and failure. I left the interview reflecting upon the general trend toward over-praising children—and the real world they will eventually face as young adults.

In New York Magazine's cover story "The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright," Noreen Malone writes how today's 20-somethings are struggling in the cold world after enjoying childhoods filled with warmth and support. A Millennial herself, Malone writes, "our parents tried to see how much self-confidence they could pack into us, like so many overstuffed microfiber loveseats, and accordingly we were awarded clip-art certificates of participation just for showing up." Outside of collecting dust and decorating childhood rooms, have these plaques and trophies served any real purpose?

Malone believes these awards have had some long-term value. "Self-esteem among young people in America has reportedly been rising since the seventies," she writes, and "it's now so dramatically high that social scientists are considering whether they need to find a different measurement system—we've broken the scale. Clearly, all that praise we got growing up, win or lose, must have really sunk in." For me, the problem isn't the profusion of positive reinforcement kids get nowadays, but rather the failure to distinguish the accomplishments that deserve it from those that don't. And whose responsibility is it to provide the endless high fives—coaches, schools, or parents?

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck offered her thoughts about this issue in the New York Times piece, "Too Much Praise Is No Good for Toddlers." After studying children's coping and resilience mechanisms for over 40 years, she says too much praise may lead to less resilient children. Acknowledging children's everyday achievements, she says, will likely have negative repercussions on their motivation to work toward them. She notes, "Parents should take away the fact that they are not giving their children a gift when they tell them how brilliant and talented they are." Dweck doesn't discourage praising kids altogether but suggests focusing it more on their approach to difficult tasks, their ability to strategize and concentrate—the kinds of skills Belafonte wished he had emphasized while raising his own children.

Perhaps if we offered gold, silver, and bronze for actual achievements, kids would learn lessons that better served their needs as adults. Perhaps if we let them lose and teach them to congratulate those who win, we would help them build the motivation and endurance needed to face real-life challenges—e.g., sustaining a long-term marriage or securing employment—two very elusive trophies in today's world.

I'm sure having once been a professional ballet dancer—now a psychologist, 58, and long retired— has skewed my point of view. Competition and rejection were daily experiences—not at home, but in the world of professional dance. By age 10, critiques were commonplace. "That pirouette was terrible," I was told by my teachers. "Practice until you get it right," was the mantra of choreographers. By the time I was a teen, I knew that having talent was not a guarantee of success. Discipline and repetition were equally important. I lost roles. I earned others. I eventually toured with a dance company. My parents enjoyed watching when they could and clapped along with the rest of the audience. But I did not grow up constantly hearing I was the best—not at ballet, finger-painting, or anything else. The result? A fierce determination to do my best at whatever I chose to do.

Thinking about this issue, I am reminded of those "11 Rules of Life" that made the rounds a while ago. Credited to Bill Gates in a speech he gave to high schoolers, but more likely originating from Charles Sykes, author of Dumbing Down Our Kids, these rules address how our feel-good, politically correct teachings are creating a generation of kids set up for failure.

Instead of trophies for all, perhaps handing participants a copy of these life lessons would have more long-lasting value. The ones I would include are:

  1. Life is not fair—get used to it!
  2. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.
  3. You won't be a high-paid executive until you earn it.
  4. If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.
  5. Your grandparents had a different word for burger-flipping—they called it opportunity.
  6. Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes, and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you are.
  7. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.
  8. Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.
  9. Television is not real life. In real life, people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
  10. Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not.

We need look no further than the just-finished World Series for the value of earning trophies for true achievements. The St. Louis Cardinals were unlikely candidates to even get to the playoffs: Ten and a half games out in August, they were down to their last strike—twice—in the sixth game of the World Series. But with grit and grace, they hung in to eventually defeat the Texas Rangers. No doubt the championship trophy meant a lot to the team and the fans. But, it makes me wonder: Had these players been awarded medals as kids—win or lose—would they have had what it took to earn the huge one in the end?

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