09/23/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

How to Stop Stealing a Kid's Ambition (Part 1)

My son just finished a competition for the local theatre arts program. When I asked him how it went, he rolled his eyes and replied, "It was ridiculous."

He then told me the awards ceremony took an hour and a half each night after the program. Why? Because every single performer -- from young kids to twenty-somethings -- got a medal for each song or dance they competed in. Several kids went home with six medals just for participating. Then, the hosts gave an additional award for those who performed well. There were three levels of awards: gold, high gold and platinum. (Did you notice the lowest level was a gold?) Finally, if a kid didn't get the award he wanted, trophies were on sale after the contest, for parents to purchase. After all, this is all about the parent's money and the kids' self-esteem... right? We just want our young people to feel happy.

It's not limited to theatre arts. Recently, I visited a friend, and learned his son Jacob had won another trophy on his little league baseball team. When he invited me to see it, I noticed it was in a room full of trophies. I assumed his team had won several championships, but alas I was wrong. Jacob had never won a championship.

I soon discovered, every one of his awards was simply for playing on a team.

I realize these experiences may not sound new to you. We are raising a generation of kids who are used to receiving recognition for participating. It started back in the 1980s, when moms and dads were determined to boost their kids' self-esteem and emphasized participation over conquest. I understand that; I am one of those parents. But I believe this works when a child is five; not when they're 10 or 11. It has backfired, and we're now reaping the consequences of this decision. I know a kid who gave the trophy back to his dad after the ceremony. He said, "This doesn't mean anything." These kids are not stupid. But I wonder if we are.

What Were We Thinking?
Reflect for a moment on the long-term impact of this kind of world. When a child gets to swing at a ball until he hits it (there are no strike outs), when coaches decide not to keep score (there are no losers), and when everyone gets the same award in the end (we are all equal), it can begin to de-motivate kids, especially boys. It takes the steam out of their engine. They begin to think: Why try? I'm going get the same reward whether I put out any effort or not. And it's put out no effort.

This philosophy has become pervasive. Adults so wanted these kids to feel special; we began to take away the possibility of failing a class. Students always seem to find a way to negotiate a grade or do some extra credit work to make up for failing to do what they'd been asked to do. Many parents have removed the possibility of failing at home; kids still get money or perks even if they failed to share the responsibilities around the house. As a result, college staff and faculty are reporting the comments that incoming students are making to them:

• Why didn't I get an A? I showed up to class every day.
• You're guaranteeing me a job once I graduate, right?
• OK... so I flunked the test. What do I need to do to get the grade I want?
• How come my suite mate got a scholarship and I didn't?
• If my parents pay the tuition, I deserve the grades I want.
• I think the government's job is to make sure I get a job and a house.
• You can't criticize me. I tried.

Author Daniel Pink explains how three groups of pre-school students were asked to draw a picture. The first group was told: "When you're finished, you will get a prize." The second group wasn't told anything about prizes, but each student got one after they drew the picture. The third group was told nothing about prizes and received no prizes when finished. The result? When given the opportunity to draw a second picture -- but kids were told there would be no prizes -- not one student in the first group of kids wanted to draw anything. Nearly all kids in the second and third class did, as their motivation wasn't a reward in the first place. Hmmm. The motivation for the first group was reduced to an outward reward. External stimuli. The third group drew pictures for the sheer, intrinsic reward of creating art. The lesson? In our effort to reward students, we have stolen the satisfaction of the work itself. In giving them something for nothing, we're stealing ambition from them.

Next week, I will share six ideas on how we can stop stealing the drive and ambition our kids should intrinsically experience as they grow up.