My Kid’s NOT a Winner So Stop with the Trophies

Diploma?

My little brother strode the stage in his cap and gown, gave his med school dean an emphatic handshake and transitioned from Mister to Doctor for the rest of his life. “Now, that is really something,” I said to my mom through misty eyes. That decades-old moment still resonates in my heart.

A couple weeks ago, my 5-yr-old, in a lemon-yellow $15 cap and gown we were obliged to buy, was handed his “Diploma” at his PreK4 “graduation.” I love my son’s school, but this, simply put, was bullshit! 

When my wife called the principal to share our opinions against PreK graduation, she was told this was an expectation of American parents; all kids receive a Certificate of Completion for the year. I’m no hater; let the children sing We Are The World, and I’m front row, lip-quivering like a granny. But let’s just call that a year-end celebration and skip the pomp and circumstance … especially when my boy could not care less about his “diploma” (which has already been recycled). By fabricating a false sense of achievement we diminish the sanctity of a graduation and do more harm than good.

We fail as parents and teachers when we “try to make each child feel like a winner or, in some way, outstanding, even if the student has done little to warrant such attention,” say Dr. Jeffery Kanov, the former district psychologist for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Kids come to expect that, by doing the bare minimum, in this case, merely showing up at preschool, lavish praise is warranted. “The sad truth is that bestowing a sense of feeling special, or exceptional, or outstanding on a child who hasn’t actually earned these labels only serves to enhance that child’s sense of entitlement. It stokes narcissism which leads people to not only demand special treatment from others … but to believe it is their right. Narcissists don’t do well with criticism and tend to blame others for their mistakes and failures,” says Kanov.

Do you want your kids easily demoralized by failure and willing to cheat or avoid applying themselves to avoid it?

All-star?
All-star?

Making the little league All-star team was one of the biggest moments of my young life. And I wore that patch on my arm with immense pride. Not making that elite team the following year made me hungry to work that much harder to get back on top, which I eventually did. Trophies were once rare and powerful motivators.

The same week my 5-yr-old “graduated,” my wife got an email asking her to come in to retrieve our 7-yr-old’s baseball trophy for his just-finished first season. Flashing back to our boy absent-mindedly doing cartwheels in right field, my wife asked “Did everyone receive trophies?” Of course, everyone did. Our son’s hitting and catching improved and he brought a good attitude, but did he deserve a “reward?” Absolutely not.

The experience is the prize!

In a wonderful NYT Op-Ed, titled Losing Is Good For You, Ashley Merryman writes of “a Maryland summer program that gives young kids awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long. The science is clear … nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.”

Merryman nails it, “If I were a baseball coach, I would announce at the first meeting that there would be only three awards: Best Overall, Most Improved and Best Sportsmanship. Then I’d hand the kids a list of things they’d have to do to earn one of those trophies. They would know from the get-go that excellence, improvement, character and persistence were valued.”

We don’t get trophies for just showing up at work in the real world, so why program our kids to think that’s how the game is played? Life is tough and requires hard work, respect and failure to gain true wisdom and perspective. Merryman has great advice for us all, “Parents should keep one question in mind. Whether your kid loves Little League or gymnastics, ask the program organizers this: “Which kids get awards?” If the answer is, “Everybody gets a trophy,” find another program.”

Squall, acrylic on cardboard,  10x10", 2002, Stuart Sheldon
Squall, acrylic on paper, 10×8″, 2002, Stuart Sheldon

Stop trying to constantly “protect” your children from the painful consequences of their inaction, or worse from their own foolish or irresponsible behavior. Or from losing. We inadvertently breed little self-righteous monsters by over-praising and trying to keep our kids happy all the time. 

When they never grasp the concept of having to do something meaningful in order to get a reward or praise, they not only miss out on critical wisdom, they can get downright belligerent. When things don’t go their way, they lash out with, “It’s not fair” and “You’re so mean” and “I’m not doing it cuz this is stupid.” This unmotivated and perverted lack-of-ownership can continue into adulthood. At which point, WE, the parents, should get a trophy for most clueless.

Again, Merryman nails it, “Our job is not to reframe our children’s mistakes as victories but to help them overcome setbacks by seeing that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss … and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed.”

I still love these puppies.
I still love these puppies.

Are My Kids Failures?

Kai & Bodhi bathtub Mexico 2011

My kids are 4 and 2. All I want, like any parent, is their happiness … and success. But I’ll take happiness over success every time.

Some would argue that success and happiness are synonymous. I strongly disagree, because we have perverted the definition of success. In fact, success for children often precludes happiness these days. Because it is based on the college you get into, the resume you compile and the comaprative advantage you possess to get a good job. And I’m talking about 5-yr olds.

My friend’s daughter is in a public kindergarten 6 hours a day. And the kid has ONE HOUR of homework each night. She cannot read yet, so the parents have ONE HOUR of homework a night to do with her, all of it filling in little test bubbles with multiple choice answers.

This is supposed to prepare her for the barrage of standardized testing coming down the pike. I contend it robs a bright-eyed baby of her precious youth.

I want my kid climbing trees after school. Playing Marco Polo in the pool. Building forts out of blankets at their friends’ homes. Madeline Levine’s new book “Teach Your Children Well” delves deeply into this dilemma. According to a recent NYT review, Levine, a psychologist in my former habitat of Marin County, “works with teenagers who are depleted, angry and sad as they compete for admission to a handful of big-name colleges, and with parents who can’t steady or guide them, so lost are they in the pursuit of goals that have drained their lives of pleasure, contentment and connection. “Our current version of success is a failure,” she writes. It’s a damning, and altogether accurate, clinical diagnosis.”

I will not tolerate this for my children. So I have big scary questions:
1. How do I keep the happy glow in my kids’ eyes and educate them properly?
2. What does educate them properly even mean anymore?
3. Where do I turn if I don’t buy into the public system?
4. Do my kids even need to go to college to be happy and successful?
4. What alternate elementary and secondary educational experiences can I employ: work experience as a family, long-term family travel, home schooling?
5. Who has success stories to share that produced well-balanced adults?