I was watching the "Today" show recently when they set up a mock scene in which child actors brought sizable trophies into a restaurant to show their father, who was also an actor. He asked them what they were for, and they replied that they basically just got the trophies for showing up.
It was all an attempt to stir up the bystanders and get their thoughts about whether kids are too easily rewarded these days, and it worked. The people in the restaurant expressed everything from disapproval to pointing out that it's not the kids' fault, to basically saying it's a nice thing.
Well, I was happy to see this being highlighted. I don't think it's a nice thing; I think it's misleading. Giving trophies and ribbons to all children is essentially meaningless.
I started thinking about how we got to a point where we thought it was important to reward all children, even if all they did was show up, and all I can come up with is that it's a result of the movement to build children's self-esteem.
But how can it? Even if it prevents them from feeling bad about themselves temporarily, they come to realize over time that they're not, in fact, being singled out for anything special they did. Then they're right back where they started in terms of self esteem.
There are plenty examples of people trying to avoid hurting children's feelings in this way. I've heard about spelling bees where children can misspell words and continue to stand and keep going along with all the children who have spelled all their words correctly. It's also occurring in simple children's games, such as musical chairs, where a child might not get a chair when the music stops, but the game continues without a chair being taken away or the child having to sit the rest of the game out.
Although it may seem harmless because it's a simple game, let me point out that these simple games are how children learn the way things work. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Important life lessons start with small, simple concepts with children. Games are perfect opportunities for children to learn that there's a winner, and the rest of the people are not winners - and that's OK. Everybody doesn't win every time.
A good book that emphasizes how you can start building character as early as infancy is "Starting with Character" by Cathy Waggoner and Martha Herndon. Character starts taking shape much younger than people realize.
I understand why we parents and grandparents let rules slide. We don't want children to be upset or cry, and we don't want to make them feel bad. But in the long run, they're going to feel bad eventually, and they won't know how to deal with it. They'll get a little bit older and be playing games with friends from school who aren't going to let them cheat and aren't going to respond as kindly if they throw fits every time they lose. Eventually, they'll grow up and they might not get a scholarship or a job that they really wanted, and they won't be able to cope with disappointment if they don't get it - because they've always been handed everything just because.
Let them deal with it when they're playing Go Fish. You think, "Oh, it's only a game." Of course, it is only a game. But the games get bigger.
Awards are a way to distinguish hard work and giftedness. Let children see that clear picture. Somebody is the best. Don't give them false information to make them feel like they are if they aren't. Instead, we want to encourage children. We want them to understand that if they want to be good at something, they have to really work at it. And they might not be the winner the first time or the second, but if that's what they really want to do, they have to keep trying.
Show them the benefits of being there even without being the winner. Hopefully, they got to enjoy it along the way. They got to be with friends and be part of a team.
Parents, coaches and teachers can all help children identify their own strengths. I've been in classrooms where teachers go around and say the same compliment to every child about their picture. Now, if she said, "I love the way you made your 'S.' That was really great," the child will realize she's paying attention. Children are smart. They know when there's no meaning behind it. Find out what is special about each child. Be honest and compliment things that he or she actually has done and done well. Every child has something you can compliment.
Another mistake is trying to win an award for your child. Sometimes, parents want that blue ribbon more than the children. But parents should not interfere to the point where their child is not actually learning, growing and earning the recognition legitimately. Encourage and guide children through their projects. Don't do the work for them.
Everything we do is helping them to move farther down the road. It might seem little at the time, but they'll be a little bit older next year, so when are we going to break that habit? By protecting them here, we're making it harder at the other end.
Giving them trophies they didn't earn is giving them a false sense of what the world is like. Not only is it not helpful, it's going to hurt them in the long run when it comes to dealing with disappointments that are part of life. You're not going to get everything you want.
In the Olympics, not everybody gets a medal, and there's a reason for that. But that's OK. They did get to participate.
Suzi Brodof is executive director of River Valley Child Development Services in Huntington. It offers child care at Enterprise Child Development Center, after school programs at Meadows Elementary and the Explorer Academy, and other services for children as young as infants up through elementary school.