Everyone's a Winner!

Reading Time: 2 minutes
49ers Vince Lombardi trophies
You don’t get these trophies just for showing up.

You know how the old saying goes, “It’s not whether you win or lose—you get a trophy either way.” Oh, wait, no. That’s the more recent version.

If you’ve got kids participating in group activities (particularly sports and music, I think), there’s a good chance they might have gotten trophies or other awards, sometimes simply for showing up. The idea is that we want to encourage kids to participate, and we don’t want to seem unfair, so we give everyone a trophy just for showing up. But here’s the thing: competition isn’t fair. Sports and games have winners and losers. Some people are better than others.

Ashley Merryman has an opinion piece in the New York Times this week titled “Losing Is Good for You,” in which she talks about, well, letting our kids lose sometimes. There’s an entire chapter on the subject in NurtureShock, which Merryman co-authored with Po Bronson a few years ago, and their recent book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, digs into competition a little more, and the findings are fascinating.

In her column, Merryman explains that “children aren’t fooled by all the trophies.” They know who’s ahead and who’s behind, even if we tell them that we aren’t keeping score during a soccer game and that “everyone’s a winner.” It calls to mind the recent kerfuffle over the summer reading program at Hudson Falls Free Library in New York: after the same boy won the reading contest five years in a row, the library director wanted to change the contest so that other kids wouldn’t feel bad. The story drew national attention and has resulted in both the library director and a long-time library aide losing their jobs, all because one kid was winning.

Eighty percent of success may be “just showing up,” but to get a trophy I think you should really put in the other twenty percent first. How about you: what’s your experience been with your kids and participation trophies?

Photo at top: “Five Time Winners” photo by Flickr user Ariaski, used under Creative Commons License

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