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Points for Effort

Posted Aug 23 2008 3:14pm
Ok, I'm pretty worked up about the gymnastics scoring in the Olympics lately--especially the arbitrary tie-breaking system that left the US gymnast with a silver medal when it would have made more sense to give two gold medals. And though this has next to nothing to do with the welfare of boys, it did have me thinking (albeit in an unconnected way) on the proliferation of the participation trophy in youth sports. Now let me preface this by saying that I have no problem at all with appreciating effort or improvement and thanking people for participating in things. But in my opinion, the "everyone gets a trophy" mentality has the opposite of desired result--it devalues effort and genuine accomplishment by making it clear that everyone is going to be rewarded equally, regardless of their effort or contribution. Adults leave jobs over this kind of thing, and yet somehow we expect kids not to notice? Or worse, we seem to labor under the impression that it somehow helps self-esteem when everyone gets a trophy. Of course, this is a bit illogical, since everyone getting a trophy is the same as no one getting a trophy in terms of recognizing any particular achievement. It doesn't really matter how you try to cover this up--when everyone gets a "specialized" award, the kid who gets, "sharpest uniform," is going to be able to put together the fact that this is because he wasn't in the running for, "most points." And when it's a pure particpation award, the child knows that this isn't the recognition of a championship effort so much as an acknowledgement that they showed up. Of course, you're probably thinking, "Malia, you're obviously still bitter about that time in first grade when you entered your favorite bear in a stuffed animal contest and found that everyone got a blue ribbon--including you for, "softest and whitest." Well, yes. Yes I am. But that's because, even at age 5, I knew what was going on, and it made me mad that the adults thought that I was too fragile for real competition or that this half-reward was somehow better than having an outright loss. To make matters worse, the concerns about children's allegedly fragile self-esteem don't even stop to consider whether this is a good way to raise self-esteem in the first place or what value self-esteem has in the greater scheme of things. (Researchers have yet to find any strong connection between self-esteem and success in life or school.) Those who are allergic to competition may claim that having winners and (gasp!) losers is damaging to children, but I think it really depends on how the adults involved handle things. Sure, participation trophies aren't the devil, and I don't think that receiving one is going to turn your son into a success-averse Marxist hippie. (Unless that's what you'd prefer, in which case, I don't think that the participation trophy is going to help much either.) But considering how well competition can work as a motivation tool for boys, it does leave me wondering whose self-esteem they're really meant to boost--the child or the parent?
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