Thursday, June 3, 2010

Are We Raising Kids to be Winners or Participants?

I saw the green ribbon, all imitation silk and faux gold-leaf lettering, buried on a cluttered table. It had the telltale crinkles and creases of surviving amid the worksheets, Pokémon cards and snack wrappers in my son's backpack. It bore, in capital letters, a single word that would wound any serious athlete: "PARTICIPANT."

third place ribbon"How'd field day go yesterday," I asked my son. "Not so good?"

The potato sacks were too small for his extra-tall frame, he said. The tire he had to roll around an orange traffic cone went wobbly and out of control.

"So you didn't win any events, huh?" I said, bracing myself for tears but hoping for a flash of determination followed by a vow to chase chickens and chug raw eggs Rocky-style to get ready for next year's three-legged races and water-balloon tosses.

"No, our class beat three others in the tug of war," he said. "We were really gooooood."

However, there would be neither blue ribbons nor empty hands. Every second-grader would leave the playing field an equal -- a green-ribboned member of the indistinct middle. In a few days, my son’s ribbon had disappeared without a trace and without any saddness on his part.

I'm not a subscriber to the Vince Lombardi-isms about winning being the only thing. But I do sometimes wonder if we do right by handing prizes to our children for simply showing up rather than actually excelling. How can they learn the value hard work and practice bring to success when results are irrelevant to reward? Has modern society's focus on preventing our children from ever feeling inadequate bred out the competitive gene by instilling a sense of entitlement for just being?

"It's psychotic!" I kept hearing the superhero father say during The Incredibles movie. "They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity ..."

I prepared many weeks in advance for my first field day when I was a fifth-grader (yes, son, back when dinosaurs and imitation wood-paneled station wagons still roamed the Earth). My event -- the softball throw. I spent hours heaving the one cement-hard gray softball we owned back and forth across our yard. Victory, I knew in my bones, could be mine with practice, attitude and stalling for a good gust of wind at my back.

When field day came, I was ready. Unfortunately, so was Millard. Millard was an impossibly tall classmate whose preference for unbuttoned cardigan sweaters optically enhanced his vertical superiority over not only the entire student population but also most of our teachers. Legend was he had stayed back a year. Or three. Reality was that on that spring day, he threw a softball clear across the entire asphalt back lot, the orb nearly clipping the metal backboard at the far end before hitting dirt on the edge of the woods.

My throw that day proved only good enough for third place. However, I came home with a yellow ribbon, proud I had showed given the missile launch I had witnessed. The ribbon hung on the corner of my bedroom mirror, holding a place of honor for more than a dozen years before I packed up my childhood for adult pastures.

ribbon_tag A few days later, while searching some boxes in our basement, I came across that yellow ribbon, all imitation silk and faux gold-leaf lettering. "THIRD" screamed its front. On a cardboard tag on the back someone had written my name and my not-quite-winning event (and I quote), the "softball through."

This reminded me about the upcoming second-grade spelling bee my son had been prepping for lately. I found his vocabulary lists and the note the school had stapled atop them about the bee.

It concludes: "We will be handing out prizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners!"

Maybe the competitive gene hasn't been bred out. Maybe we're just making it more selective.

* * *

Postscript: To the best of my knowledge, Millard, the softball-throwing machine of my youth, is dead. He was stabbed or shot while he robbed someone or was being robbing himself. He was in his 20s. I cut the article out of my hometown newspaper many years ago and tucked it away because I knew one day I would need to write about him. It was while searching for this clipping (which I still haven’t found) that I happened upon the ribbon I won that day. Winning isn’t everything or the only thing. Sometimes it’s just a flash that leaves a ghostly imprint you see when you close your eyes.

And who finished second in the fifth grade softball toss of 1979? Hey, Ms. Picket: I could be wrong, but you might want to check with The Kid.

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  1. We were talking about these participation ribbons just the other day at my joint. Along with some other examples...

  2. Great post. Millard's story is sad, but his name is perfect for the role he played in your story.

  3. I can't decide how I feel about the "Participant" ribbons myself. My daughter has a couple of them pinned to her bulletin board. On the one hand, I'm glad she got something out of her track and field days, and on the other hand.... what you said.
    Coincidentally, I posted about this idea (sort of) today too. I guess it makes sense; The end of the school year is when a lot of accolades and kudos get doled out, for everything from excellence to attendance.

  4. They used to give out certificates of participation in the olden days too. I know 'cause I got a few of them. And everybody knew they were bogus back then.

    But I think in general we just celebrate and commemorate every minor achievement more today than when we were kids. I didn't have a middle school graduation, and I sure as hell didn't have 5th grade graduation. It seems like all that affirmation becomes meaningless when there's some kind of prize and party every time a kid turns around.

  5. Okay, I will go for "participation" ribbons and "you actually kick the ball" soccer trophies until second grade. Then it is time to earn your hardware. And I completely agree with Beta youngest is completing 5th grade, with a graduation. (Argh!)

  6. Well hell, Kevin, you really got me thinking with this. How do we teach gracious winning and dignified losing if everyone is rewarded for just showing up? I guess who the "we" is makes a difference. Schools can do what they choose and parents can register their disapproval in that arena. In the end, isn't it what parents teach their kids what matters?

  7. Upon further reflection, I think Sly may have started the entire "celebration of mediocrity." He wins the fight, gets the girl, and films 37 sequels. Why? Because he can run the Art Museum steps. An achievement Thing 2 could do with Gameboy in one hand and Tastycake Krumpets in the other.

  8. We were just saying this about the new report cards at school here. Gone are the days of "A, B, C, D, & F" replaced with "1,2,3,&4". And as parents we are left to wonder how to congradulate a "2" since NONE of the kids got any ones. Just another way to reward mediocrity.

  9. I joined in on the discussion at Earl's = I've got strong feelings about this, and I do think we're rewarding mediocracy! It makes me insane.

  10. I hosted a county-wide art show at the college a few years back and the teachers insisted that we paper the show with ribbons.
    "we have to show the kids that their art means something!" was one of the whines.
    Instead of showing the kids what was good and what was exceptional in the show, they all got a pretty blue ribbon and a collective hug from the judges.

  11. That's so sad about Millard, I'd grown to like him in those few sentences, with his impressive throwing arm and his cardigans. And I think you're right about awarding mediocrity, I'd never thought about it like that before.

  12. My kids have enough 'participation trophies' to fill a small closet. I've never received a single trophy in my entire life, but got maybe 4 ribbons for choir contests and 4H. Those were like gold to me.

  13. I remember when they started giving out ribbons for participation. I was disappointing to me because I was a super athlete and had a pile of 1st place trophies and ribbons. Winning meant less when everybody got an award. heck, the only reason I wanted to win was for the recognition and the trophy. I didn't do it out of some sense of competition and fair play and participation with my fellow man. No, I simply wanted first place. When everyone's walking around with a ribbon, it diminishes the significance of 1st.

    Anyway, what a random story about millard. Makes you wonder what went wrong with the kid.

  14. Well payed, Mr. McKeever, well played.

    And well written :)

  15. I coach my 7 year old daughter's soccer team. The league we're in doesn't want us to keep score, we're all winners out there. I hate it, my daughter knows we keep score, and we want to win. Sure, it's fun to play, but it's more fun to play and win. Kids are tough, they'll bounce back when they get trounced, we don't need to coddle them.

  16. I got a participation ribbon more than my fair share of times. It's sad and pathetic to admit. Thanks for giving me a venue for it.

  17. I think there are times when rewarding participation has a place and times when winning and losing has it's place as well. There is too much rewarding showing up now a days and the idea of graduations for every level of school that Beta Dad talked about are big examples of that. In a country where childhood obesity is on the rise finding ways to encourage kids to participate is important.

  18. If you complete a marathon, you should get a participation prize. But as far as field days and prizes for each and every kid regardless of how they performed, it's awful.

    There are winners and losers. And the losers shouldn't feel bad if they gave their all. In a perfect world the disappointment would drive them to do better next time (see Jordan, Michael as prime exaple). But each time cater to our kids and pretend that everyone is the same, we do more damage and raise the level of mediocrity even higher.

    But you'll notice this only pertains to athletic events. Academic events like math club, spelling bees, etc are somehow exempt from the wrath of overprotective parents. They're still allowed to give 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes. It's ludicrous that sports receives the short end of the stick because of the misguided notion that academic competition is OK, but not athletic endeavors.

    But that's the ninny, chickenshit society we live in today.

  19. This reminds me of an article I read about the work ethic of the WW2 generation, how it morphed into the winner-take-all attitude of the Baby Boomer generation and then how it translated down to the sense of self entitlement that hallmarks Generation Y. Part of the article had to do with the concept of bolstering self-esteem by making everyone a winner with participant trophies and ribbons. There were a lot of pros and cons to the argument for and against this point with studies and surveys the supported both. Time will tell.

    I do like Daddyfiles' point about the distinction between sports and academic pursuits in this regard. I wonder sometimes if making everyone a "winner" for sports activities is meant to make it easier for parents to deal with or the kids.

    Awesome post.

    PS Kind of sad about Millard.

  20. Have you read Alfie Kohn's book, Punished by Rewards? My kids have so many trophies and ribbons and most of it doesn't mean anything to them. The amount of work teachers and parents put into the ridiculous parties/graduations/awards is amazing - and mostly unappreciated. My kids participate in Odyssey of the Mind and while they hear the "all of you are winners blah blah blah" (and it is true - they are) - only the 1st and 2nd place teams get trophies and let me tell you - they want those dang trophies. When they win one they can't stop staring at it because they know it really means something. We never did the stickers for basic bodily functions or any of that nonsense. In fact, the joke in our house is, "What do you want? A freaking sticker?" Anyway - it is fun to go through the old boxes occasionally, isn't it?

  21. I personally don't have a problem with participation ribbons. My daughter used to get those in gymnastics. But she is really good now the competition is really fierce. So they don't give those things out at her level now. So to me it was a temporary stay. As a father, I try to make sure she stays competitive no matter what ribbon she earns. And she did EARN participation ribbons because there are a lot of other kids sitting at home and watching TV. At least she was out there doing something.

  22. This is going to be included in the coming edition of Festival of The Fathers.

    In regard to the question you pose I think that we are making a mistake by constantly leveling the playing field.

    We don't want to wreck a kid's self esteem but we need to provide them with coping skills so that they can survive in the real world.

  23. I remember attending a kids' party at our local children's museum a few years ago, when my oldest was only 2yo. The older kids were playing musical chairs with some very enthusiastic moms leading the game. As a chair was removed and a child made to be "out", they'd chirp "you win! you win!" to the child who was obviously "out" and not the winner. I thought this was such a weird thing: why tell a child who knew he was "out" that he "won"?!

    (and loved your story about Millard though his postscript is a sad one)

  24. Amen. I've walked away from many kids events wondering the same thing. Kids should be rewarded for hard work, and while it's good that they know that they tried their hardest...they should also know that you don't earn your life by showing up. Not to mention, kids deserve to be recognized for excellence.
    I wasn't a sporty kid, but I made up for it as an adult. I have karate trophies that I feel silly about, but secretly LOVE.

  25. If you listen around 6:15 mark of this vid. It pretty much sums up what youre saying. I concur by the way.

  26. Sometimes I think whoever makes up the contests were scarred in their youth by not winning. They don't want their children or any children feeling that sting when they don't win, even if they have tried their hardest.

    Life doesn't reward you for showing up, so the awards for "participation" are not worth the ribbon they are printed on.

    We have to teach our children to be gracious winners and losers. Life is all about winning and losing. We do our children a disservice if we don't let them try and fail. We also do them harm if we don't teach them to put the effort into winning, that winning doesn't just come naturally.

    Great post.

  27. It gets worse... our local newspapers are running stories about the city's soccer league's new "lose if you win too much" rule:


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