Back when we were living in San Francisco, both my son and daughter went to a "progressive" school that taught grades K through 8. The school had a very clear motto, one that was repeated to the kids and their parents again and again: "Everyone at [Our School] is a Winner!"
One day after class, I arrived to see my 6-year-old son playing a game of what looked to me like baseball. I casually asked the teacher on hand whether that's what it was -- and who was winning. "Oh," she said, turning to me. "We don't really care about who's winning. And the game doesn't really have a name. The kids make up the rules as they go."
It was hard to argue -- at first. After all, there's nothing wrong with fostering creativity or encouraging free play. And without a "loser," there was no risk of sending home a crying kid. Right? But, I wondered, aren't we missing out on teaching kids a valuable lesson in how superior performance reaps greater praise? Isn't there something to be said for being rewarded for working hard, rather than just showing up?
Of course there is. Right now, there's a divide happening between those who believe that kids should be shielded from the idea of competition -- that no child should ever be put in the position of losing, which means everyone's in the position of winning -- and those who, well, advocate for a more reality-based approach. I'm with the latter. Because letting kids win, or avoiding declaring a winner at all, is setting them up for disappointment and failure later on.
As my son got older, the kids played sports in a more traditional way: with rules and boundaries. And yet, the end of each season always included some sort of awards ceremony during which medals or trophies were handed out to every child. You may think this is a good thing: Let's help kids feel better about themselves, no matter what. Boost their egos, instill confidence. But it's actually doing the opposite. Later on, these are children who may have trouble recognizing their own successes. They may have a hard time motivating themselves to work hard, or push to earn what's theirs. Why would they? They've grown accustomed to having victories and praise handed to them with zero to little effort. They have no faith in their own abilities because we've never given them reason to. This leaves them feeling empty and ill prepared for life in the "real world."
Consider what may happen when we teach kids about healthy competition, and how victories earned are sweeter than those blithely handed over. Through my work with families I met Fran, a woman who never took a physics course until college but ended up working as a physicist in a top research lab, holding her own among scores of men. Fran remembered a childhood spent camping, sailing, working on the car, and learning how to use power tools with her father. "And when we would play games--Monopoly or anything like that--he would never let us win, my brother or me," she told me. "I remember beating my dad at checkers for the first time at 7-years-old, and I was very satisfied."
When every kid gets a medal, however, no matter how well she plays or how poorly the team does -- and this is the norm in many communities -- we send a dangerous message. We may think that rewarding every child will make them feel good -- and it may, for a moment. But it may also make them feel that they are entitled to praise and recognition for merely existing. And that does no one any favors.
The truth is that in real life you don't get rewarded for showing up. The real lesson we should be teaching kids is that the rewards come when you work hard and accomplish something. And the rewards might not always come -- that's an important lesson, too.
Fran's father's belief in his daughter's intelligence fueled her urge to compete and emerge triumphant. When she finally beat him at checkers, she knew the win was real. She had played better than he had, end of story. In that way, at the early age of 7, Fran was primed to trust her competence and own her success. And that is a real victory.
This post appeared in the June 24, 2012 issue of Huffington.