Participation Trophies Are Bogus

04/02/2015 01:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

Yesterday, I stood by and watched as my kids were kicked and punched.

It was their first karate tournament, and they were sparring. They'd practiced for months, but this was the real deal. There were trophies to be won; there was pride at stake. Both kids thought they were each pretty good. Neither was nervous. My daughter calmly informed me she was "pumped up." They weren't cocky, just self-confident, assured that they knew what to do in the ring, no matter the belt, size or gender of their opponent.

This was also my first rodeo as a karate mom. Actually, it was my first time as a mom at any form of competitive kids sport. My kids might not have been nervous but I was, unsure of how to build them up, but not too much. Worried about their fragile egos. Hopeful they might win. Scared they might lose.

All around us were other parents, some new to this gig, some old-timers. There were those who quietly directed their kids, up close, looking them in the eye, reminding them of their lessons. There were those who were chill about the whole thing. And there were many vocally coaching their kids from the sidelines.

"Use your crescent kick!"

"Let him come to you."

"Go on the attack!"

That wasn't me. In truth, I wasn't sure what to do. I tried to catch my kids' eyes before they went on, giving them a small thumbs up of encouragement. Mostly, I watched mutely from the sidelines, mildly terrified, unprepared for this role and the psychology it would demand.

I don't think it ever crossed their minds that they might not win. But let me tell you, receiving a "participation" trophy is a phony substitute. One kid took home two of those suckers. The other took one. They regarded these trophies with disdain, evidence of their not being good enough. There were tears of frustration and disappointment. Then, to our surprise -- and even his -- my son took third place in his last match. His face lit up, and he fairly grew an inch with pride and delight. As if his earlier assurance had been warranted. His smile said "See, I can do this."

At almost 8 years old, my daughter had the hardest time repelling that ineffective phrase: "It's the taking part that counts."

"I wanted to win. But I lost," she sobbed.

I wanted to provide all the justification in the world, encourage her to use this moment to look around and observe what it takes to win. To remind her that, with effort and practice, those trophies could soon be hers too. I feared she'd want to throw in the towel, abandon her karate altogether. Instead, I decided the best thing to do was to just hold her and let her absorb it all.

Because letting them fail is something we have to do, as parents. It's a bitch of a lesson, but it's a healthy one.

The best part? She shook it off pretty quick and her happy spirits soon returned. And her brother, fortunately, didn't gloat over his win.

I'm sure they've filed yesterday's experience away. I'm hoping the next time they "suit up" for karate, it will be with a little less confidence, but a whole lot more determination and respect.

As for me, I'm also going to need to thicken up my game day skin if we are all going to come out of these tournaments unscathed. It's been a solid lesson in losing for me too.