We all lose when everybody wins

Photo: budgettrophies.net
Photo: budgettrophies.net

Yesterday was Sports Day for my older son.  As a parent volunteer, I dressed in a pair of red jeans and led a group of color-coordinated kids around the schoolyard, encouraging them to do their best ‘throwing the hopper’, shooting baskets, and skipping rope.  They ran and jumped and shot their little hearts out.  At the end of a long afternoon they bounced a football on a parachute for five minutes, slowly wilting in the sun. I yelled myself hoarse cheering them on, rallying them to go faster, try harder, keep going.  Parent captains kept score, tallying points for how fast and how many baskets and adding extra points for team spirit.  Throughout, Team Red kept asking me what the score was.  Were they winning?  Behind?  Close?  At the end the afternoon, my Reds waited to find out who had won.  The parent coaches waited to find out who had won. The teachers running the events waited to find out who had won.

And then we all had to suffer through the inevitable preachy platitude.  That sticky sweet statement.

There is no one winner today, because WE’RE  ALL WINNERS!

Bullshit.

Photo: twitchy.com
Photo: twitchy.com

In life, there are winners.  And if there are winners, by default, there are losers.  You can call them non-winners if you like.  Participants. Competitors.  Event Attendant.  But when it comes right down to it, down to those sharpened brass tacks we are so careful not to step on these days, there are winners and there are losers.  And kids….well kids KNOW this.  They know it instinctively.

Most kids are natural competitors; they want to succeed, they want to excel, they want to do their best.  They want to win.  And for years now, we have been insulting them by assuming they can’t handle losing.  As much as my Red Team wanted to win the whole shebang, dance around for a minute and gloat that they were the champions and they would rock you, they weren’t about to go out and loot the computer lab if they lost.  They were happy being out in the sunshine, screaming themselves hoarse with their friends, skipping out on math, enjoying a popsicle at the end of the day.  They still wanted to win though.  Yet here we were telling them that the reward for doing their best, for trying their hardest, should be the pride they felt in knowing they did their best.  A pretty sophisticated and complex expectation for a bunch of grade schoolers.

And while nothing is wrong with kids feeling proud about doing their best, there is also nothing wrong with winning.  We are so busy shielding them from failure in the cloak of self-esteem boosting that we are lying to them, so caught up in bubble-wrapping our children from the facts of life that we are doing them a disservice.  Under the guise of protecting them, we are actually harming them.

I excelled in school.  I was a model, straight A student who passed papers in on time.  I was the one who got the symbolism in English Lit class, who took Latin and generally found academics enjoyable and easy.  But I sucked at sports, and at geometry. And at sewing.  I was rewarded for my academics, with medals and honors and eventually, a scholarship.  The high school quarterback, who didn’t excel at English Lit but was really, really good at completing passes, was also rewarded with a scholarship, double mine.  No one told me that well yes, you did well in English class, but you won’t receive a scholarship because, well, we’re all winners.  No one told the quarterback that he couldn’t hoist the Tri-Valley League Championship trophy because, well, the other team’s feelings might be hurt.  In our ongoing quest to make the world a fair and equitable place for our children, we are taking something away from them.  Not only kids who excel, but from the ones who don’t as well.

The dyslexic boy who struggles with reading but can bend it like Beckham?  When we tell him everyone is a winner, we are belittling HIS talent.  The girl with the glasses who is always picked last in gym class but wins the 3rd grade spelling bee by spelling P-O-I-M-E-N-I-C-S?  When we hand out equal medals of participation, we are taking away from HER pride and sense of achievement in what she excels at.  We are so worried about making sure that everyone feels good about themselves, we’re sucking the life out of our kids.  We’re taking away the drive that those kids who AREN”T good at something may feel to go out and find the talent they do have.  The thing they are good at, the thing they excel in.  If everyone is treated equally for everything they do, you take away a desire to do your best.  There is no sense of achievement or pride.  There is an adult sized pat on the back and a over-enthusiastic well done.

Kids don’t want “Well-done”.   They want to know that their hard work paid off.  They want to win.

We are selling our kids short, and by doing so, we are setting them up for a lifetime of anxiety and failure.  Because eventually, whether it’s in middle school, college, or the work place; in relationships or sports or academics, or just life itself, they are going to learn that the world is not a fair and equitable place.  That everyone gets a popsicle at the end of the competition is great, but there’s also nothing with wrong someone coming in first.  There is nothing wrong with being proud of that, or, for those that didn’t win, having the experience fuel the desire to do better next time.  Far from taking away from the efforts of the teams that didn’t win, we are doing more damage to the self-esteem of the ones who did win and are made to hide their pride at winning.

Photo:  goodreads.com
Photo: goodreads.com

We are living in an age of over-parenting which sees us censoring fairy tales because they are “too scary”.  We are shunning classics like Huckleberry Finn because they use racial slurs.  Parents go broke inviting the entire class to a birthday party because someone’s feelings may get hurt.  We get swept along with the current trend of not opening gifts during a party because another child may get jealous, or God forbid, be bored.  How are our children going to learn to negotiate the world, to drive themselves forward, if we  keep putting the brakes on their experiences?

We are not just bathing them in hand sanitizer anymore, we are sanitizing their lives.

My red team at Sports Day didn’t want to hear that they were all winners–they wanted to hear THEY had won.  But, they would have been perfectly content if Team Pink had won instead.

Kids get it.  It’s the adults that have lost our way.

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20 thoughts on “We all lose when everybody wins

    • dhonour May 24, 2013 / 7:01 pm

      Thank you. As you may be able to tell, the whole experience touched a nerve, not just for me, but for all the other parents that were out there. The kids don’t want this ‘no winners’ policy, the parents don’t want it, the teachers don’t want it, so why is the agenda still being pushed so hard. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!

      Like

  1. Louise May 24, 2013 / 7:17 pm

    You are so right! Bring back a bit of healthy competition. Winning is great but kids also need to learn to lose, pick themselves up and try again.

    Like

    • dhonour May 24, 2013 / 7:40 pm

      Exactly. And to find the thing they are good at, whether it’s art or music or baseball or math or chess or…the point is, the list of things to excel at is endless, but if you’re never pushed to find it because everyone wins, well then who is really losing out? The kids are.

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  2. goldfish May 24, 2013 / 7:30 pm

    I completely agree. This everyone gets a trophy just for showing up nonsense is setting a whole generation up for inability to deal with the slightest disappointment. The real world doesn’t give you a salary just for showing up.

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    • dhonour May 24, 2013 / 7:42 pm

      It is no surprise that today’s generation of children have record high levels of anxiety and depression. I hope that we, as parents, can get our acts together before we too become a sandwich generation of parents–taking care of our own elderly parents AND our middle aged kids who can’t function because they aren’t getting any praise.

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  3. stefan ansorge May 24, 2013 / 8:19 pm

    Well we can start at home by sometimes telling them the truth about their performance (at anything) instead of always praising them for everything they do. My daughter was so used to the ‘clap on the shoulder’ that she was almost addicted to positive encouragement and would not finish anything unless she was told how “fantastic” she did. Loosing is just a part of life as winning is. So maybe we should stop picking them up our children all the time and instead let them pick up themselves.

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    • dhonour May 24, 2013 / 8:33 pm

      Well, I tell my kids all the time life isn’t fair, but I’m probably a bad mom by some standards ;-). Overpraise, over parenting, over-coddling, not letting kids scrape a knee or break an arm or ride to the store by themselves. It will be interesting to see what happens as they get older. I agree with you–they need to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and try again. (I think I stole that from a song). But the sentiment is true.

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  4. Rup May 24, 2013 / 8:21 pm

    Spot on. Real life is a competition, regardless of what you do, we need to support the children in figuring that out. I told R in the morning that the whole point of Sports Day was “WINNING”! I suspect (and hope) our competitive streak has rubbed off on our two and I for one certainly intend to encourage it.

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    • dhonour May 24, 2013 / 8:35 pm

      I think the fact that most of us as parents are quite competitive ourselves (some of us having grown up prior to the new fangled way of parenting) must be even more confusing to our poor kids. They’ve got us old school parents telling them to get out there and suck it up and win, and at the same time they’ve got a society telling them that winning doesn’t matter. It’s not wonder why they’re anxious!

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  5. doublewhirler May 24, 2013 / 10:14 pm

    Well said Dina! I also wonder if kids brought up being told “Good job!” for everything s/he does, how does this help them judge what really is a good job? And how does this culture prepare them for not getting in to the college of their choice or not getting the job they want? I remember a screen grab from CNN story about Cyprus where they put Nicosia in the middle of Sicily. I can imagine the producer saying to the graphics person, “Yeah, that’s an island in the Mediterranean, well done, good job!” Makes you wonder what the effect will be 10, 20 years down the road. Great post—good job! 😉

    Like

    • dhonour May 25, 2013 / 2:09 pm

      Hey! I typed a well thought out and slightly witty reply to this ages ago and it got sucked into the vortex of WordPress somewhere. Unless it pops up on someone else’s comment, in which case…oops. Right, as I was saying, I am guilty of over-praising in early childhood. Though I made it a point, from a linguistic standpoint, to say “Well-done” and not “Good Boy/Girl” which smacks of dog speak to me. But certainly my kids early on were clapped at and cooed at and congratulated for things they should have not thought twice about. (Though once I heard a father praise his son for sliding. “Good sliding, Jack!!” and I can say with certainty that I’ve never gone that far). So basically when I am a dottering old lady trying to collect my Social Security check (as if), some middle aged clerk will be giving me a consoling pat on the back and a ‘good job, Granny’. I may need to move to Switzerland, where euthanasia is legal if that’s the case.

      Like

  6. Natalie Wilhelm May 25, 2013 / 10:49 am

    Well done. Once again. I sent it on to all my friends at home too.

    Natalie

    Sent from my iPhone

    Like

    • dhonour May 25, 2013 / 2:10 pm

      Thanks, Natalie. Always appreciate the shares. I feel like I’ve come full circle because MY third grade teacher liked the post when I put it up on Facebook. 🙂

      Like

  7. keladelaide May 25, 2013 / 2:28 pm

    We still have a winning team at my son’s school on Sports Day.

    Like

    • dhonour May 25, 2013 / 2:39 pm

      Hmm…so is Australia 20 years behind in trends or 20 years ahead of the game? ;-). It’s great that they haven’t bent to the pressure. In the US, where you are practically bottle fed the notion of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and doing your best and being #1 from birth, it surprises me that it’s taken root. But I honestly think the parenting trends are swinging the other way, hopefully finding a balance somewhere in the middle.

      Like

      • keladelaide May 26, 2013 / 12:33 pm

        I’d say we’re 20 years behind.

        I’ve worked in 30+ schools and competitiveness is evident but not to the detriment of others. There are exceptions with individuals but the main consensus is that you do your best and be a team player on Sports Day. The trophy bears the name of the winning team, etched for life, but the talk and hype around the winning team is gone before the week is out.

        There always seems to be the extremes to the decisions that are made. I hope the middle is where the US can find an answer soon.

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      • dhonour May 26, 2013 / 1:28 pm

        Ironically, my kids aren’t even going to school in the US! I always think of the States as being the hot-spot for these types of extremes though. I’m probably wrong. There’s nothing wrong with a little competitiveness, with teaching kids how to lose AND win gracefully. Again, I have a feeling we sell the kids short. They get it.

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  8. transparentguy May 26, 2013 / 2:10 pm

    I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago because I teach a college class in the humanities, and, over the past few years, the “I paid my tuition; where’s my A?!” attitude has grown to encompass most of the students. As I thought about it, it hit me that these are the people who are the first grown generation of the “everybody’s a winner” syndrome. They really are in for a rude awakening when they hit the working world.

    Like

  9. kelseyjordangw October 24, 2013 / 5:19 pm

    Totally late for this but I agree with all of this. I actually got into an internet disagreement when I was still on Babycenter. It was soon after I had my daughter and I wrote a blog about how I wouldn’t let her have/keep participation trophies, with my belief being, you don’t get awards just for showing up. It’s harsh, but I want her to understand what losing feels like. it should suck and it should inspire you to try harder next time. One mother replied “There are shades of grey to winning and losing in life…” Gah! No there isn’t. You don’t sort of get a job when you apply. You either win the honor of showing up for a paycheck everyday or you get to try for the next one. Major sports teams aren’t giving blue ribbons to the team in last place. No. Those teams are firing their coaches and replacing their management. Why? Because there are winners and losers in life. And that’s okay.

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