In high school I had a 3.8 grade point and I can only remember taking books home a few times. Success at our school was basically showing up, listening, doing the minimal work assigned and succeeding. Then I went to college and was shown, in no short time, that just showing up wasn’t enough. I started college with a 2.1 G.P.A. and nearly lost my place on the gymnastics team.
My son’s compete in Trampoline and Tumbling and have been in the USTA (United States Trampoline/Tumbling Association) for the last 2 years. In their competitions every child wins a trophy, recently the switched to medals at some meets due to cost, (USTA, my overcrowded shelves thank you). Today, participation trophies are expected by the kids and parents, in fact I heard a mom actually complain when her kid got a medal instead of a trophy. I guess to her the value was in the goodie bag and not the party (sorry, for the birthday party reference).
Studies have shown that the science of the over-rewarding of children is indisputable;. Ashley Merryman (with Po Bronson, author of “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children” and “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing”) reports that awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. In fact it can cause them to underachieve. By the age of 4 kids have already figured out that some kids are good at a performance and some are not. And it is true that we often see the kids who are not proficient can get frustrated and drop out. But we also see that kids who excel often feel cheated when everyone is rewarded the same despite their talent or effort. The kids who excel also get frustrated and quit. Is that what we wanted?
Different activities, gymnastics being one that I can attest to, are more appealing because the participation is challenging. Not knowing if they will win, place or show is exciting. Knowing that an unpointed toe is the difference between 1st and 2nd place makes the details important. That adds value to the sport or activity and the time and effort spent training it. If every child in a meet received a trophy what is the motivation to learn, grow, try-fail-and try again?
Yes we do have an annual show at Gymfinity and every child gets a medal. But that is a show and every child is rewarded for participating. Never, during the course of the event, do we try to pass it off as a competition. I am aware that kids feel great when they are recognized; that is what the show is all about. It’s a time to show what you learned and not to be confused with what you can do in comparison to another person. That is competition, and that is where I have a concern.
Studies show that kids respond positively to praise; that point is not in contention. But Carol Dweck (Stanford University) tells us that children accustomed to regular praise of ability regardless of outcome will likely crumble at the first sign of difficulty, then demoralized by their failure the kids say that they would rather “cheat” next time then experience failing again. Is that what we want?
Having studied recent increases in narcissism and entitlement among college students, Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me” warns that we are setting up our children to believe that all it takes to succeed is to “show up”. I started by stating my high school rewarded me into that belief until reality (Actually it was reality and Dr. Parker) taught me differently. Had I not been raised to try harder when I failed, I would have quit school thinking that the system was rigged, or that it was too hard for a kid like me. I didn’t quit, in fact I graduated college with honors because I worked hard to reverse my poor start. In life, “you’re going to lose more often than you win, even if you’re good at something,” Ms. Twenge says, “You’ve got to get used to that to keep going.”
However, we have developed a system where we teach children that merely breathing at an event is worthy of reward. They are not allowed to fail and so they never learn the value of it. Our goal should be to introduce kids to winning AND losing. We should show them that failure is a hurdle that can be overcome with effort. We need to value the growth and development over a longer time than focusing on the rewards that are offered for one moment in time. My gymnasts are trained for meets 2 years down the road not for the meet that happens next week. They are trained to learn life lessons from the gymnastics model, winning a meet is a glorious byproduct but it cannot be the focus of training. Of course meets are important and rewards should be given to those who earn them. But as adults we need to see that there is value in not winning, in fact, I believe that winning and losing both can be motivators to continue striving for excellence. With that as a philosophy how on Earth can we hand out trophies without meaning? Let me answer that: If rewards of no value will get children to quit, be frustrated, devalue participation, and ultimately be trained to believe that hard work, diligent focus and standing up after falling down have no value; then our goal must be to reverse everything our parents ever taught us. Is that really what we want?