Is it better to lose (and lose some more) than always “win”?

By Caitlin Kelly

Sport in childhood. Association football, show...
Sport in childhood. Association football, shown above, is a team sport which also provides opportunities to nurture social interaction skills. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From The New York Times:

Trophies were once rare things — sterling silver loving cups bought from jewelry stores for truly special occasions. But in the 1960s, they began to be mass-produced, marketed in catalogs to teachers and coaches,
and sold in sporting-goods stores.

Today, participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, as children are constantly assured that they are winners. One Maryland summer program gives awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long. In
Southern California, a regional branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization hands out roughly 3,500 awards each season — each player gets one, while around a third get two. Nationally, A.Y.S.O. local
branches typically spend as much as 12 percent of their yearly budgets
on trophies.

It adds up: trophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry in the United States and Canada. Po Bronson and I have spent years reporting on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.

The story had attracted 282 comments within a few hours of its publication…here’s part of one, from a male reader in New York City:

We want fame. We want adoration. We never want to break the from adolescence, no, from infancy, when we were center of the universe and a whimper could get our diaper changed.

And this admission, from a young woman in Chicago:

I’m 24 and a college graduate, and my peers and I were constantly praised from kindergarten through college. Like in the article, we all got trophies and certificates of achievement in grade and middle school, high grades in high school (partially so we could get into good colleges) and good grades for just showing up to class in college.

Competitive skills are not inherently developed; they are learned. What we have now is a group of young people coming out of college and high school who are just discovering that it takes more than showing up to succeed in life, and it is in no small part due to the “everybody is special” culture that we were steeped in as adolescents.

I think there’s a fine line between wanting non-stop attention and false adulation — “Great job!” I hear parents coo when some small child does…anything…these days — and genuine encouragement to persist in the face of disappointment and rejection.

PCHS NJROTC Awards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had an interesting moment about four or five years ago, after a board meeting of fellow journalists for a national group. Three of us were walking to dinner, chatting — we had each applied that year for the same ultra-competitive fellowship, worth $20,000 to $40,000.

None of us won.

We all went back to our busy lives and personal challenges, and we’re all still here, all still in the game. We didn’t curl up in the fetal position, sucking our thumbs and whining to one another about it.

Ever. At all. You lose, pick yourself up and get on with it.

I applied last year again, as one of 278 applicants, and became one of 14 finalists.

I lost again.

I’d planned to re-apply this year but I decided to take a break.  Will I apply yet again? Probably.

Losing is dis-spiriting, indeed, but I think “winning” every time you compete for something is crazy.

English: English Premier League trophy, inscri...
English: English Premier League trophy, inscribed with “The Barclays Premiership” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life is too difficult!

You’ll never win every date/job/fellowship/grant/award/book contract/raise/promotion you want. No one does. (And if you do, I wonder how far you’re stretching and growing…)

But in a culture that usually only cheers and celebrates heroes and the wealthy, those whose visible proof of success wins them lots of attention and praise and high-fives, (all pleasant, certainly), it’s a challenge to remember — and to teach children — that failure is normal, to be expected and builds tenacity and resilience.

And those are the true building blocks of solid, lasting self-confidence.

In his book about children’s resilience, fellow Canadian Paul Tough argues strongly for the idea of grit.

Here’s an interesting post from the fab Maria Popova, she of BrainPickings fame, on how to hop off the hamster wheel of self-esteem addiction.

What say you?

Have you won awards or accolades you knew were bogus?

How are you teaching your own children to handle disappointment and loss?

60 thoughts on “Is it better to lose (and lose some more) than always “win”?

  1. We had an awards ceremony at the end of each year in high school. I won awards in 10th and 12th grade for visual arts and creativity, respectively. Not one year did I win the Language Arts award, which I wanted since I entered high school. Was I upset? Yes, I felt I worked hard for that one. But it also taught me to work harder and not cut corners. And look at me now! I’m starting a career as a writer, and it’s going well, considering everything. And yet I know, because I haven’t been coddled my whole life, that there’s still room to improve.

    1. It’s nice that you won any awards…But it’s also a powerful and useful lesson that the decision to award someone is subjective. A piece of writing rejected by Woman’s Day won me Canada’s top National Magazine Award. You never know who will like what, or why.

  2. I think losing is essential to winning in life overall. It is the getting up and the bouncing back that gives you skills and resiliency. I’m raising a kid who handles losing well. A lot of that parenting starts with how we react when our little darlings fail. It’s never the end of the world in our house and our discussion afterwards always focuses on remedial action that might make it better next time.
    It was hard watching her lose in taekwondo tournaments, but she worked harder and the next time, that smile on her face was one of well-earned victory. You just can’t have one without the other.

    1. So good to hear from you again!

      I think you’re making a great choice to “let” your daughter fail. It’s normal in athletics, as in life, to not win every time and the later victory is indeed such a triumph. A parent who invests too much in their child’s win is putting on too much pressure, no?

  3. I do remember in the 70’s that my son’s softball league won lots of awards even though they did very poorly in the field and my son spinning whirling dervishes in the outfield didn’t help. My husband earned lots of awards, too, for his running but he earned every one of them. I have learned to lose a little more gracefully as an artist who submits to shows and has been rejected many times but it only spurs me on to be better. I am not sure I taught my son to be competitive against himself; he is not a competitive person at all.

  4. mikemajor9

    Probably the biggest problem for me about this whole new self esteem is king/ everyone’s a winner culture of ours is simply this: how will our kids learn to push themselves to reach their true potential? If they always win, why try hard? Or harder? Or even bother trying at all? Learning to deal with failure, we always say, is crucial to achieving success… and yet we never, ever let them fail. Our job as parents is supposed to be to help them become the best, most capable adults they can be – I’m not sure that we’re really doing that these days.

  5. Much of how we approach challenges as adults is based on what we expect to be the probability of success, and that tends to be biased towards whether or not we experienced success as a child. So, while you keep trying things you fail at, I wonder how much of that has to do with having regularly experienced success as a child. There is such a thing as too much success, so that children are afraid to experience failure. But there’s probably a middle ground. The issue is that success doesn’t have to mean a trophy. It could just be having our parents there at the game cheering us on, or a coach telling us, “Nice try. Now, do this next time…” implying we might actually be successful next time. I failed at a lot of things as a child, and I think I tend to underestimate my chances of success because of that now. There are things I don’t try because I figure I’ll never succeed anyway, so why bother? On another note, the research on praise indicates that praise that is either overly general (That’s wonderful!) or character-based (You’re brilliant!) is neither motivating nor meaningful. Specific praise about what has actually been accomplished (I like the way you keep tackling this problem until you get it just right), for achieving a specific standard of achievement, and praise for effort are helpful.

    1. You, as a teacher, are likely much more in touch with this…

      But you make a really interesting point and, yes, I did succeed a lot when I was younger, in ways that still surprise me. I won the lead in plays at summer camp every summer; won awards in school in Grade 4,5,7 and 8, then again later for poetry and writing, and was a decent athletic competitor as well. I sold three magazine cover photos while still in high school.

      So I didn’t always expect to win, but I did expect to do decently.

      But, typically, I got little praise, that I recall, from teachers or parents. I tend to be intrinsically motivated; too much praise isn’t helpful in that respect.

      My new agent gave me a terrific compliment today in an email and it took me by surprise. I was delighted, but I never expect praise and am so grateful to receive it.

      1. I think praise is most useful when you use it to get people to do things they don’t really want to do–at least they can get some affective benefits from it. Like math, for example (for most people) or taking out the trash. Or, if you are AYSO, and want to fill your teams with kids, only some of whom are actually good at soccer and only some of whom will leave the season with a sense of real pride about what they’ve done. Being able to set a goal for yourself–like being in the school play–and actually doing what you set out to do is the best motivator of all for most people. But I think we praise and reward kids so much because we actually want them to do a lot things that aren’t very much fun or very interesting and that they aren’t naturally good at and never will be–and because they won’t starve or get beaten for not doing it (the old motivators). So we needed to find another way to get them to do that. I think we forget for how little time we’ve been trying to do this–we only passed the 50 percent mark for enrollment in high school 60 years ago. So, back in the day, kids just didn’t go to school when it got too boring or hard and they were too big for their parents to force to go. And now we have to figure out how to get 17-year-olds who actually don’t even have to attend school to learn a pretty phenomenal amount of fairly boring and useless-seeming information. So, I think all the trophies and stickers and praise is really a way to bribe people to do things we would like them to do that they wouldn’t otherwise want to. I don’t know if it’s harmful or not. I do think it’s good that generally we stopped beating kids to accomplish that.

      2. I would have given you stickers!

        It depressed me too. I mean, I think we started up with the whole trophy for everyone thing out of the self-esteem movement, but I think it’s really here now to motivate people to do things they otherwise would not want to do.

      3. I would have needed a LOT of stickers! I’m good in practical terms with handling math for personal finance but never even studied trig or calculus, sorry to say. Algebra was tough enough,

        The sad fact is life is FULL of shit we don’t want to do! But you have to do it anyway.

      4. Exactly. And as adults, we have the cognitive control and usually the motivation (starvation, homelessness, humiliation in front of our friends) to do many of them. But what do you do with kids who don’t have that? Stickers, obviously…

        I would have given you puffy stickers. 🙂

      5. Send some today! 🙂 If this damn book proposal fails to sell, there won’t be enough puffy stickers in my area code to console me…

        This is probably why I am not a teacher and when I do teach, some students loathe me. I set a very high bar and expect students to TRY to achieve it, which may mean working much harder than they ever have before. Some really resent it and fear it (and so take it out on me). It’s elitist shit to say so, but I believe strongly in trying to achieve excellence…how else can you possibly hope to stand out from the crowd professionally, and/or get anything interesting done? You might as well start young because that’s a habit and needs to be practiced a lot.

        Steps off soapbox, twisting ankle in process.

  6. In working with some parents as a therapist, a great many of them were uncomfortable in discussing weaknesses with their children. They literally were willing to pay a child therapist to discuss and problem solve inappropriate behavior. I was a mean therapist and would facilitate the mother/father telling the child, yet unwilling to take on this critical parenting responsibility and skill for mom or dad.
    The most common reason I heard from parents avoiding negative feedback was, “We don’t want them to feel like failures,” or “we want to foster strong self-esteem” or reasons within the same zip code. I spent a significant amount of time reminding parents, life is is not going to hand them kindness in coffee cups.
    Being comfortable with failure is critical. Resilience will not develop without adversity.

    1. Thanks for this…what a fascinating/sad insight. When I feel like a failure, it’s not because I’ve failed at a task. It’s more relational. Maybe parents need to get a better grip on that; as long as you still have some belief in yourself, and a posse of others who do as well, you’ll keep on trying.

  7. No, I never won anything like that when I was a kid. We just played and hoped we got OK grades and stayed out of trouble. When something I did worked, it was its own reward. When it didn’t work, it wasn’t. When I raised my own kid, I saw how the schools did what you’re saying, and I felt I couldn’t undermine “the system” and cause him to lose faith in it so young, but if my son did something good, I told him I was proud of him, and if he failed at something, I offered to help, or just got out of his way. I don’t think he personally put a lot of stock in the “awards” that he got during his school career. I’m glad now that I did not reinforce the false awards–and by my reaction, or lack of it, I somehow transmitted my own values to him. I think. All that said, if someone offered me a “parent award,” I would laugh at them. I’ve never done anything for so long and made so many mistakes.

    1. I bet your son turned out great…getting out of a child’s way is a lot better for creating a sense of independence and self-reliance than all the hand-holding and fake praise. I think the challenge is to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated and who can handle setbacks.

      I’d like to meet the parent who never made a mistake. 🙂

  8. I really enjoyed this post and all the comments on it. I think failing in life is one of the best (if not THE best) learning tool in life. It never feels good, and it can certainly set you back, but ultimately, for those who handle it the right way, the failure and the lesson(s) learned from it can propel you forward further than you could’ve gone without it.

    I recently suffered quite a big failure. I’m still in that phase of being devastated and feeling like I AM a complete failure (as if there’s no bouncing back from it), but I know that once I kick that mindset to the curb, I will come back even stronger and more determined than before.

    Every failure brings you one step closer to success! 🙂 (Although sometimes that success seems so far off in the distance!)

    1. Thanks…and good to hear from you again!

      My current book proposal has already (ugh) been rejected by about five publishers, and one of the emails was quite the little nose-smack indeed. It really deflated me. I’ve produced at least three or four proposals that never sold at all…which taught me: 1) how to write them better; 2) that some just won’t sell; 3) how to work more effectively in finding and keeping (and firing) an agent. If this one doesn’t sell, I already have an idea for the next.

      I hope you feel better soon…knowing you, you’ll bounce even higher.

  9. I always fostered the belief with my daughter that she’s be good at some things and less good at others. As long as he tried her best we’d always be proud of her. When she won things at school like handwriting awards we always told her “That’s nice,it’s always good when people can read what you’ve written” which was praise enough for something someone in every class would have won, and maybe more than one.
    Her exam results were different though, there was praise aplenty for the passes she got which were more for her application than for competitiveness. We found it better to offer praise for application rather than success. For special things we might give her a gift after the event if she won which seemed to give her the competitive spirit each of us need but wouldn’t foster the need to scramble over others in her efforts because it was never promised before the event.
    I’m not sure what I’d do today with the need to be a winner pushed at children, and a reward offered at many points upon the way. It devalues the award given to the overall winner if it seems you can get trophies just for being there.

    1. It’s true that rewarding application is more helpful — as we all have to apply ourselves and we may not win, even with our very best efforts. It doesn’t mean we didn’t try hard.

      Losing is tough. I don’t like it much, and I suspect few of us do. But I know when I’ve given the best I have and the hell with it after that.

  10. Dorli

    Another interesting post. I am reminded of perhaps my favorite New Yorker cartoon entitled “Gifts from the House of Low Goals” (try to find a readable version). On the subject of the importance of kids failing now and then, middle school teacher and writer Jessica Lahey is doing some work on that. Perhaps you know of it?

  11. I love the idea of having grit. When I was a kid I was labeled as gifted and got the chance to attend a special program once a week at another school. I loved it. I excelled at everything I tried to do and my parents frequently told me that I was smart. So when I failed my drivers exam when I was 16 I couldn’t handle it. I was devastated. I got my license on the third try. It was an important lesson to me about perseverance and handling failure gracefully. Now as a parent I emphasize effort and not natural ability. I tell my kids that not everything is easy but the most rewarding things in life are sometimes the most challenging. I need to remind myself of the same lesson because I feel like giving up after rejections too.

    1. Rejections hurt! Much as I am trying shrug off the rejections for my book proposal right now, my ego wants everyone to LOVE it. Not likely. If it doesn’t sell to anyone (and that can happen), it’s a year+ of hard unpaid PT work down the drain. Not much to do but keep hoping now…

      Being smart, sadly, doesn’t mean we’ll never fail. 🙂

  12. Goodness, what a great topic. And I tried to read most of the comments but didn’t get to all of them. I do like Ashana’s point but do agree, your comment made me laugh– it’s a depressing thought. I think about this often. And just read a great piece in Aeon magazine, about teaching play in school. And when there is less structure, you can watch how kids gravitate towards their interests, and then are able to eventually come up with more passionate career choices because of it. Rather than having them always learn to the test on a bunch of boring subjects they will never remember. Or having them play soccer when they don’t want to. Or play violin because it looks good on their transcript. UGH…it makes me mad thinking about it. As a child, my mother was hyper-critical. I couldn’t do anything right. And it was awful growing up this way. After awhile I realized I was a good, smart, person. I just defined success differently. I didn’t need straight A’s like she wanted me to get. Or to be perfect, and always get the trophy. I found my own esteem. But not all kids would do that. I have a son who is a almost 9, and a perfectionist. And if I gave him a trophy for no reason, he’s still be mad at himself for something he did wrong, or something he couldn’t figure out. I’m constantly explaining to him he is too hard on himself, and that it takes time to get better at things, nobody is perfect the first time. He tells me sometimes his brain doesn’t work right, when he doesn’t realize, he’s not the only one with problems….. Love that movie “Meet the Robinson’s” it’s just like that message–you have to keep on trying and that’s how you succeed. We watch that often! But I find I need to compliment him, and say good job on doing xxxx (need to be specific, so they know), because otherwise he needlessly gets down on himself. It’s a tough balance as a parent to figure it out. Now, do I think they need to have “kindergarten graduation”— or trophies for showing up–give me a break! Some of the ceremonies I find so ridiculous. Oh boy, I could go on and on…..but will stop. Thanks for your post!

    1. Wow, I hear you on the hyper-critical family thing…I come from a crowd of super-high achievers and always feel like a total schmuck in comparison…I earn far less, have never (yet!) won a huge international award or drive a Porsche or have ever owned a house (or several)…

      It’s very difficult to deal with perfectionism.

      I got over it because it cripples you and stops you from ever just getting ON with it, imperfect or not. And “perfect” is a totally useless notion, short of mathematics or engineering; it’s so subjective. It just has to be good enough — to sell, to pass, to please the teacher or prof or client (and yourself.) I see this fantasy crippling a LOT of would-be writers. I just keep writing and publishing, perfect or not, and the income keeps showing up because I don’t stress myself to death over faux ideals.

      I am also very grateful indeed to have grown up in Canada, where we were never “taught to the test” nor did we have to write an SAT or groom ourselves relentlessly into being superstars. We just had to get the requisite grades to gain admission to the school of our choice. It is an artificial and exhausting way to have some driven adolescents burn out before they even start college.

  13. Such an emotional topic… all of us as parents want to spare our kids the (fill in the blank) that we went through. But I agree that we do our children no favors by insulating them from the world’s hard knocks by handing them fluff awards. Earned rewards for hard work are one thing, but don’t-feel-bad awards are another.

    When my daughter was in high school,she went to a high achieving school with about 3-4,000 students. She was in Advanced Placement classes, on the Dean’s list, etc. She now says the best piece of advice she ever got was the warning to be cautious about becoming complacent.

    At the time, she was the cream of her city school, but when going to a Big 10 university, all the “cream” from around the country would be there, and if she didn’t hone her good work ethics soon, she would be surprised by the rigor. When she got her first C grade, it was a rude awakening, but not one she was unprepared for. She buckled down and ended up with her Ph.D. in Neuropsychology, working in a satisfying career today. She had plenty of hard knocks with difficult advisors and hospital politics, but she is better equipped to deal with the world and can get back up everyday to help others. That’s an award I wish for every child!

    1. Congrats! She sounds amazing, but no surprise….:-)

      I went to the U of Toronto, Canada’s toughest school, and it was fairly murderous pleasing my professors. Good prep for the “real world.”

  14. I was at the grocery store once, standing in line at the checkout behind a man and his daughter who was about 8 years old. She was helping him unload their cart onto the conveyor belt. And every time she put an item down, the father would erupt with praise. “WOW! Good job! Excellent! Look at YOU!”. Every. Single. Item. He was practically shouting. And I thought that it was the saddest, kookiest thing I had seen in a while. I’m sure his intentions of praising and encouraging his child were genuine. But I don’t think he realized how he was ultimately setting her up for failure down the road.

  15. Such an interesting post. I played sports as a youngster and was just a so-so athlete. I found individual sports extremely stressful. Once before a swim meet, I considered punching a wall to break my hand so I wouldn’t have to compete and lose in front of everyone. I didn’t – and ended up coming in last swimming butterfly. Demoralizing. But I was proud that I hadn’t given up, and in other sports I preformed better. My mother grilled into my brain the philosophy “never give up.” Even when facing a mountain of shit… don’t give up. My feeling is that losing and loss are part of life. Learning how to deal with both is essential to both survival and success.

    1. Wow…No event is worth that much stress!!!!!

      And butterfly is really hard, as we both know. I’m in awe you even competed in that event.

      More than anyone, you know the cost of loss…and recovery from that.

  16. i think being able to accept having lost is a very important life skill. i begin teaching it with my kinder class, even with candy land, a game notorious for so many young children cheating to win at all costs.

  17. How apropos. I just watched my daughter work her tail off competing for district title in choir. I knew she had it but her nerves were giving her fits, so I figured she reduced her odds by half because she couldn’t shake the what ifs. Sure enough, she missed by one. But what made me proud is that she didn’t cry or sulk. She recognized her mistake and still had tons of fun with friends. I told her that her working so hard and not making it, but coming away with such a great attitude made me mor proud than if she’d slid into first place effortlessly.

    I constantly stress the work ethic above the achievement. I don’t know if that is the right answer, but its what I do.

    1. For four years, I was a nationally-ranked saber fencer and every year at nationals I was eliminated just before the final eight who fought each other for the national title. That was still damn good! I took it up in my mid-30s. At one event, I met a man who had devoted the previous four years to training to make the Olympic epee team (the $$$, the lost hours to work, friends, relationships, travel, coaching, etc) — and missed the team by ONE spot. I have always wanted to write a magazine article about some of these people. Imagine how they feel.

      We need to fully celebrate the joy of participation, the friendships that come with it, the incredible growth mentally, intellectually and physically of sustained effort — and get the hell off the trophy issue! I’m a super-competitive person and not the sweetest when I lose, but I just can’t freak out anymore when I do. Very few of us “win” every single thing we try out for.

      I hope your daughter still sings loud and proud! 🙂

  18. I’m so happy to read something that directly points to issues of over-praising our children. I recently wrote a post about why we should say “No” to our children, in response to a somewhat new parenting phenomenon of not saying the word “NO.” I believe our “Yes” and “You’re great at everything!” parenting are both one in the same. Both ‘methods’ create completely unrealistic expectations for our children and do not prepare them for the real-world of rejection, loss and hard-work. Check out my post on “Say Yes to The word No”

  19. I have to educate new younger employees that ust showing up isn’t enough. Sometimes they get it and actually work and those that won’t don’t last. Parents are doing their children a disservice by coddling them.

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