By Caitlin Kelly
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
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.
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.
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?