On participant ribbons and letting kids always win

I just went to a fair with my kids, where all four of them participated in a hula-hoop contest. My children are not world-class hula-hoopers. They are mediocre at best and didn’t outlast the winner. It was just something fun for them to do.

But guess what? They all won participant ribbons! So forever we can celebrate and remember their mediocrity at rotating a plastic hoop around their hips.

Sigh. They loved the ribbons. They smiled and proudly showed them to Dad, who secretly rolled his eyes at me afterward. There’s something really annoying about the fact that we’ve created a culture where we can’t allow kids NOT to win. We don’t want our kids to think they are less than the best.

The result is that we’ve created a sense of entitlement in them. They participate in something and are disappointed not to get recognition when it’s over. They don’t learn how to lose or how to deal with momentary insignificance. This can be a big barrier against self-discovery.

Psychologist Sara Dimerman, author of Character Is the Key: How to Unlock the Best in Our Children and Ourselves, has written extensively about kids and competition. “Unfortunately, if a child always has to win to feel good about herself, she might actually be at greater risk for feeling bad. Learning how to cope with placing second or even last goes a long way toward boosting a child’s self-esteem. Children who know their own strengths and how to focus on their personal best often develop a healthier sense of self-worth than those who always need to win.”

Real life is not about winning every competition. Unless you’re LeBron James, you don’t grow up getting trophies in every sport. (Well, maybe he did growing up, but it hasn’t always happened as an adult.)

The hula-hoop competition of life doesn’t hand out participant ribbons.

That was a weird sentence. But it’s true. There are distinct benefits to NOT winning all the time. Losing increases determination to do better next time. It makes you practice more. It makes you study harder. Losing can be the best motivator for kids to put effort into getting better … or to realize that maybe the hula hoop isn’t for them, and they need to try something else.

I understand how awards can be great motivators. Kids like be recognized, just like adults do. But automatic awards can cause kids to under-perform because, if everyone wins something, they don’t have to do their best.

In my experience, when kids lose at something but aren’t used to experiencing that kind of difficulty, it generally leads them to a couple of negative outcomes. One, they might quit. Because the pain or disappointment or frustration is too hard, and they don’t know how to handle it. Or two, because they don’t want to experience failure again, they turn to more drastic measures. They cheat. They play dirty. The fear of failure is so uncomfortable that they’d rather cut corners so they don’t have to experience it again.

Kids need to learn how to handle failure. They need experience at losing — and losing gracefully.

We should be teaching our kids that success comes from hard work, patience, and determination. That recognition comes from doing things well. That rewards come from perseverance and trying again if they fail. If they get rewarded for simply showing up, they learn nothing.

My kids know when they’re good at something. They also notice when someone else is better than them at something. So if I’m constantly telling them they’re the best at one thing and it’s clear that they absolutely are not, then will they learn not to trust what I say? Am I creating an environment where my opinion must be taken with a grain of salt? Maybe. “If my parents tell me I’m the best at everything when I know I’m not, how will I know when they are actually telling me the truth?”

Good question.

Kids love competition, but they need to know how to handle winning and losing at it. Winning is the easy part. Let’s teach our kids to be better losers. It helps them be better sports. It helps them learn to handle their emotions. It makes them better people — the kind of kids who won’t throw a fit or flip over the board game or fling a baseball bat into the crowd out of frustration. It helps them learn to be good competitors who will congratulate the winning team and be happy for other people.

That’s what I want my kids to be, and I’m pretty sure a wall of participation ribbons in their bedroom isn’t gonna help.