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In some soccer coach's basement sits a little gold trophy with my daughter's name inscribed near the base. We never went to the post-season party to pick it up, never attempted to get it some other way. She didn't deserve it. Nor did she want it. At 8 years old, she hated soccer. She hated the uncomfortable shin guards, the itchy socks, the boring black cleats.
She disliked practice and she passionately, fervently, detested the actual games. Still, for completing the season, the team wanted to give her a trophy. I couldn't understand why. In my mind, if you start something, you finish it. And that gets an "atta girl"—not a trophy.
I recently overheard a waiting-room conversation between two mothers. One complained her son wasn't allowed on a field trip reserved "unfairly" for high-achievers. She admitted her son had made little effort to earn his spot, but in her eyes, it was unreasonable to reward some kids and not others. The second mother was upset because her son had received a failing grade for repeatedly falling asleep in class. "It's not fair," she said. "He turned in most of his homework assignments."
Let me see if I've got this right: Kids who don't try should get the same benefits as those who do? And completing most of the assignments should discount that sleeping-in-class thing? Are we so obsessed with fairness that we raise children to believe everyone should be treated the same, regardless of effort or skill?
My husband, Geoff, was a teen with a younger sister when his father remarried a woman with two boys. Both older boys were accustomed to always coming first, while the younger kids were used to baby-of-the-family privileges. But suddenly the roles—and rules—had changed. Cries of "Not fair!" became commonplace. One day Geoff's father sat down with all four kids and said essentially this: "On any given day, life isn't fair. That's the way it goes. We hope everything evens out in the long run. Live with it."
It seems we've become so preoccupied with this idea of equality that kids believe they're entitled to the same gifts as everyone else. I've sat through awards assemblies where every child receives recognition. I've attended sporting events where each player leaves with a trophy. And every time I see it happen, I shake my head. By trying to run our schools and activities counter to reality, we're doing a disservice to our children.
There may be some who disagree, believing there's no harm in giving trophies to all, that it's a harmless way to recognize kids' participation and encourage them to try. What they're failing to see is that by rewarding everyone, the trophy is devalued, or the certificate becomes nothing but a piece of nice paper with a pretty font. In our quest to make everyone equal and everything fair, no one is special. By bolstering self-esteem across the board, we're sending the message that self-esteem is more important than hard work and achievement. But ultimately, high self-esteem doesn't guarantee success. That takes self-discipline, self-reliance and self-control.
I have only a few trophies from when I was growing up, but I earned them. And that gives them greater value. Someday I hope to hear my daughter say proudly, "Look what I won!" instead of her usual, "Look what I got."
We need to challenge our children to excel and reward them when they do, but kids also need to know they're loved regardless of whether they win a prize. Sure, it would be nice if everyone's special talents could be given equal praise, but things seldom work out that way.
Ultimately, we aren't simply raising children—we're raising adults. And if we want them to become functioning members of society, they need to learn how to win and how to lose. They need to be able to take criticism, cope with arbitrary decisions and handle setbacks. They need to see that people who work hard to achieve—even if they fail at first—will be rewarded more than those who don't.
That's called real life. And it's fair.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.