When I worked at the elementary school level, or even when I worked with kids in private practice, I often used board games. And I always played to win. Now that should tell you something about my prowess in game-playing. But I never felt badly about beating a first grader in checkers. Some of my colleagues were appalled that I would do that. They cited all kinds of touchy-feely reasons, like “you’ll hurt their self-esteem” or “they’ll lose confidence” or “they won’t feel good about themselves.” To that, I say “Hogwash!” Never, ever did I have a kid refuse to play a game with me and never, ever did they tell me I hurt their self-esteem. What I found instead is that they would come in to see me determined that they were going to beat me. They were determined to win. Some did. And the look of self-satisfaction warmed my heart. They would walk out of my office taller, and prouder, and smug, because they persevered and figured it out. Sometimes we’d get into conversations about strategy, and I’d bring life lessons into the game. I remember doing that with a checkers game I was playing with a third grader. “You know,” I said. “Checkers is a lot like life. You need to think carefully before you make a move and plan well because, if you don’t, life could jump you.” The student sat there a second and then, eyes widened, he looked at me and said, “Yeaaaaahhhhhhh!” He got it and it made sense. After that, he’d often repeat that lesson to me when we met.
Life is not a fair proposition. We all have good things and bad things happen to us. There is nothing in our lives that makes all of us winners all of the time. So what’s with these “participant trophies” that people are pushing?? We want our kids to learn to be resilient. Meaning that they know how to, and can, pick themselves up after disappointment, failure, and hard times. There will always be someone who scores better on a test, or wins a race, or gets to sing the solo, or is chosen for a team. As we grow older, we may not get into the post-secondary option we choose, a job may not work out, relationships may fail. We don’t get a “participant trophy” for applying to a particular college or asking someone out. If we haven’t learned how to appropriately deal with occurrences like those, we are doomed to being in a continual state of upset and that’s not healthy.
So here’s a suggestion I have for parents: instead of handing out trophies or ribbons to everyone who participates, what about doing this? “I love how you got out there and gave it all your effort!” “I’m so proud of the job you did out there.” And the best “participant trophy”? “I love you for trying.” It doesn’t get much better than that, folks.