If ‘Everyone’s a Winner,’ Does Anyone Really Win?

My son rocking the middle school talent show

I have received one trophy in my 44 years — for winning the fourth-grade spelling bee at my elementary school. As I wistfully recall, I would have won the school-wide spelling bee too if my nervousness hadn’t gotten the better of me. In the final round, I transposed the letters “u” and “a” in “guard” (I still get a little insecure when I have to write or type that word).

I know it sounds silly, but I’m proud of my trophy. I won it for doing something better than anyone else (well, at least anyone in the fourth grade at my elementary school in Southfield, Michigan). Isn’t that what awards and trophies are supposed to recognize — winning?

This topic came to mind last night at my son’s middle school talent show. At the end of the evening, after about 30 performances, the principal called everyone on stage and started handing out certificates — to all the students. My first thought was, “You have got to be kidding me! These kids sing, dance and otherwise perform their little hearts out, and no one gets to experience the thrill of winning?”

Well, it turned out that I was too hasty in my righteous indignation. There were, after all, ribbons for best solo, group, dance and miscellaneous performances. This, however, is often not the case.

You parents out there know the drill (bad soccer pun not intended). If young Johnny joins a soccer team, he gets a trophy, plaque or ribbon. It doesn’t matter if he actually kicks the ball or just stands out in the field and picks dandelions (the latter is exactly what my son did throughout his short-lived stint as a soccer player). If he’s on the team, he is a winner.

This “everybody wins” mentality is all well and good when you are dealing with young children. Why not delay the agony of defeat until they are able to process it? But preteens see through the pretense — or at least my almost 13-year-old does. In a recent conversation, he wanted to know what the rationalization is for the education system creating a society of mediocrity (I’m paraphrasing, but he did say something similar).

My response to him was that the schools (at least in this case) are not to blame. The fault lies with the “hover parents” who can’t bear to see their children lose. Let’s face the facts here: Losing, like winning, is a part of life. If Mommy calls the teacher to complain because Johnny gets a “D” on his spelling test, is this going to teach Johnny to study better? It’s one thing if he needs extra help with spelling and isn’t getting it. It’s altogether different if he actively chose not to study, and Mommy is calling to “fix” the bad grade for him.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned, and continue to learn, as a parent is how to let my children lose. If I fix it every time, will they ever learn to fix it themselves? If their rewards don’t come through their own diligence and hard work, are they rewards at all? Or am I simply prolonging the inevitable — cushioning their egos because it’s too hard for me to watch them fail?

One of my first painful lessons in letting my kids lose came when my son was 8. He tried out for a local swim team and didn’t make the cut. The poor kid was devastated. He’d never participated in an activity where you couldn’t just sign up and be on the team — where everyone wasn’t a winner.

At this point I had two options: I could call the coach to complain and possibly get my son another tryout, or I could let my son fail. I reluctantly chose the latter. But guess what happened? He took a few more months of lessons, worked really hard on his strokes and tried out for the fall season. This time he made the team and he couldn’t have been prouder of himself.

At last night’s talent show, my son and his friends won the miscellaneous category for their improv comedy routine, which was an unexpected victory. They are better known for their talents as violinists, guitarists and singers. Who knew they would be so funny up there?

Sadly, their rock band, The Amish Electricians, did not win the group performance award, although you can clearly see in this video that they rocked the house (yes, I know I’m biased). My son was happy for the talented rap trio who won the ribbon. They deserved it. And I, the non-hover mom, did not corner the judges afterward.

So what do you think? If everyone’s a winner, does anyone really win?

8 thoughts on “If ‘Everyone’s a Winner,’ Does Anyone Really Win?

  1. Interesting topic. I am a firm believer that participation should be rewarded, especially when hard work is involved. Many children, or adults for that matter, chose not to participate or compete for fear of failure. Insecurities run deep with most people and can gravely effect one’s decisions.
    With regards to the hover parents, I feel that a large majority of them are fighting their own internal battles. In turn they live vicariously through their children’s successes or failures, thus the need for never letting their children learn a very valuable life lesson, losing.
    My heart breaks when my child has a hang nail let alone a failed attempt. It is my duty as mother, mentor and friend to allow failures and be standing at the sidelines for a big hug and maybe a fudge sunday.
    I want my children to be happy for those who succeed and empathic towards those who don’t. Thus, I need to lead by example.
    Thanks, Mama P for inspiring me today. xxoo (p.s. I hope you find a lot of typos!!)

  2. Thanks for your comments, Mama K!

    I absolutely agree that hard work should be recognized. But if you do something exceptionally well, I think you deserve accolades above and beyond an award for just showing up — no matter whether you are 3 or 33.

    As someone who lost at just about everything athletic as a child, I learned the agony of defeat — or at least of being the last one chosen for the team — pretty young. I know I’m from a different generation, but I don’t think getting a ribbon for being there would have made that any easier.

    Judging from what my almost 13-year-old says, it doesn’t. His attitude is, “Of course I participated. I don’t need you to give me anything for that.” He says it’s more embarrassing than anything to get those awards.

    • Keep in mind that Sam is an extremely wise 13 year old. I am by no means disagreeing with the fact that success should be rewarded, I just don’t want people to not participate for fear of rejection.
      Your lesson in gym class was obviously a good one as I recall you to be a seasoned runner who has successfully completed a marathon and several other races. You should be proud of yourself & your sweet Sam!
      You have to admit getting your medal at the end of the marathon felt good!

  3. I would rather watch my boys lose fairly and learn the lesson that it happens, rather than think they’re all supposed to win. I taught 8th and 9th graders and my mind was blown with the overly inflated perception of their work being ‘exceptional’ ‘award worthy’, etc. I mean seriously- that’s not the case in real life- you have to actually EARN those praises. It just contunies into the workforce if you’re not careful. When I was an office manager with a group of early 20-somethings, they couldn’t understand why they didn’t all get stellar reviews and raises everytime. Hey kids- guess what? People aren’t outstanding for doing the bare minumum. Because you show up on time (almost) every day does not make you a prize winning employee. It goes above and beyond- hence- they’re a ‘winner’.

  4. Right on, Farrah! You can’t deny that parenting comes into play here. We were raised to work our butts off and, as my dad often quoted Nana as saying, “do the very best we can.” No one did our homework for us. If we won something, it was on our own merit.

    I know moms of middle school kids who do their kids’ projects for them, but that is certainly not the case in my house. I tell my kids, “I will help you with anything you need, but I won’t do it for you.” Period.

    This brings up Mama K’s comments about parents’ insecurities coming into play in their children’s lives. These parents want their kids to be the best, in part so they (the parents) can be the best vicariously. They don’t seem to realize that they are teaching their kids the damaging lesson that greatness will be handed to them on a silver platter…or in the “A” they get on the science project Mom did for them.

    These same moms show up on college campuses and demand to know why the professor didn’t give their child the grade he or she “deserved.” Seriously? Yes, seriously.

    At what point do you step back and let your children fight their own battles and experience their own losses? I’m no expert, but I’m guessing freshman year of college is far too late.

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