When I was 5, I competed in my first figure skating competition. I didn’t win; I got second. I’m sure I must have cried or expressed displeasure at this, but that I don’t remember. What I remember, some 38 years later, was how my dad patted me on the head and said, “You did good. Now, go congratulate the others.” So I trudged over to the winner, a girl named Teri, who would later give me a pet crawdad named Big Bertha, and the others, and mumbled my congratulations.
I competed for years after that, and I won a lot of medals. First place, second place, third place, but also, eighth place, tenth place, fourteenth place. The point is, I worked for those damned medals. I lost as many competitions as I won. I skated for hours and hours every week, took ballet and jazz classes and did jumping and speed-skating clinics. Juxtapose that with my five-year-old son, who did eight weeks of tee ball and scored two medals. I was one of the assistant coaches, and I cringed every week when I had to give one of the kids a medal for embodying the theme of the week — hustle, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc. Every kid on the team had to have gotten one by the end of the season. We didn’t keep score during the games. And at the final practice, all of the parents made a human tunnel and cheered while the kids ran through. Then, they got another medal.
I saw the look on my kid’s face after he came out of the tunnel. He was STOKED. But also a little puzzled. Later, in the car, he asked: “Mommy, why were all the grown-ups freaking out so much?” Good question, buddy. Kids aren’t stupid.
There’s been much written about the backlash to excessive medal-giving. The Not-Its, a Seattle-based kid rock band, have a song called “Participation Trophy.” Today.com reported that a youth football association in Texas would no longer be giving out participation trophies. The reason: “… giving participation medals or trophies isn’t sending our children the right message. Trophies are something you should strive for and earn. Life does not give you a participation job or medal, life makes you earn everything you get,” the Keller Youth Association wrote on its Facebook page.
There are a growing number of learned psychology types sounding the alarm about the participation trophy/over-parenting trend. My friend Kim shared this article, from Psychology Today, called “A Nation of Wimps.” In it, child psychologist David Elkind asserts that kids need to feel bad sometimes. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.” And in the much-posted “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” story in The Atlantic, therapist Lori Gottleib described seeing young adults who had grown up with super-attentive parents. These parents had volunteered in the classroom, helped with homework, talked about feelings and intervened with things got rough at school. And yes, these young people felt close to their parents, but also, rudderless, and not as awesome as their parents had convinced them they were.
The over-parenting, over-praising thing made me uneasy when I became a parent. Obviously, there are other parents who feel the same way: On the Today.com article, an overwhelming 89 percent of readers believed that the Keller Youth Association had done the right thing by eliminating participation trophies. I wrote to the tee ball league, to ask if they’d consider phasing out the everyone-gets-a-medal thing, but I haven’t heard back. I’m sure they’d take a lot of flack from parents who believe that finishing something merits a medal, that it boosts self esteem. And maybe that’s true.
But I also know this, as an athlete and a student and a person: My copious losses have made me more determined and focused. It feels really, really good to work for something and succeed– especially if you know what it feels like to lose. I mean, check out my smile in the picture above. That was my second skating competition, and I won first place. And Teri? She got second. My dad still made me congratulate her.