March 18, 2010

What Being on the Winning Side Gets You

I recently wrote a post on how J. learned a huge lesson by losing. I think I failed to mention that the organizers of the competition gave out trophies to the teams who came in 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. In other words, they only gave out trophies to the winners. One of J.'s teammates was upset by this. She thought everyone should get some sort of recognition. "My mom says we are all winners just because we tried."

Except that they weren't winners. They lost. They came in second to last. They did a bad job. There was no teamwork. They were losers. You are a participant because you try. You are a winner when you come in 1st. Yes, they give out three medals at the Olympics, but only one of them is gold. As my husband has been known to say, "Second place is really first loser."

It sounds kind of harsh today to hear it phrased that way, but it is true. Second place really is first loser.

Yes, the kids tried. Yes, they worked hard. Yes, they put in a lot of effort. But does my 7 year-old son need a trophy every single baseball season. He has a shelf full of them, but they mean nothing to him. He doesn't care if they fall and get broken. If you ask him what they are for he will tell you, "Those are just baseball trophies." Then he will walk you over to his dresser and point to his Pinewood Derby trophy. "This is my favorite," he will say. "I won this when the car that my dad and I built got second place." It has a place of honor. It has some meaning.

The Atlantic has tied the sense of entitlement these "Trophy Kids" we are raising have to the trouble they are having finding jobs in the recession.

Many of today's young adults seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves....people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work's sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than the previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important.... "It's a generation in which every kid has been told,'You can be anything you want. You're special."'

(Jean) Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem-and to decouple it from performance-have become widespread.

When did we stop telling our kids it is O.K. to lose? Do you even believe it yourself any more? (I think it was about when we stopped teaching cursive in elementary school) But you know what? It is O.K. to lose. As long as you put in your best effort and as long as you tried, it is o.k. to lose. It is a lot of fun to be recognized to for something you did, but it means so much more to be recognized for more than participation. Ask M. He'll show you how it feels to be recognized for winning. Ask Bode Miller. Ask Evan Lysacek. Ask the Saints.

She (Twenge) worries that many young people might be inclined to simply give up in this job market.... There's an element of entitlement-they expect people to figure things out for them.

Ron Alsop says a combination of entitlement and highly structured childhood has resulted in a lack of independence and entrepreneurialism in many 20-somethings.

Perhaps most worrisome, though, is the fatalism and lack of agency that both Twenge and Alsop discern in today's young adults. Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong.

Be gracious in both winning and losing. Be a good sport. Try harder next time. Know that it is perfectly fine to lose. Teach your children this, because being on the winning side might get you more than you bargained for.

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