February 19, 2013
I had a really interesting conversation last week, with a group of women who are all abut my age (50 years old, give or take a decade). We got on a topic that usually polarizes people one way or another, and this particular chat did not disappoint. Within a minute or two of raising the topic, we had all chosen up sides, politely made our points, then agreed to disagree.
We were talking about our current generation of young people and the fact that any child who participates in anything, ever, receives a trophy just for showing up. Sometimes they don’t even have to show up; sometimes, the registration fee is all that’s required to garner a shiny mounted bauble.
When did we, as parents, decide that this was a good idea? Oh I know, the “no child left behind” mindset with respect to sports and other extracurricular activities was spawned out of our never-ending quest for fairness. But why do we want to teach our children that life is fair, that they will always be rewarded for participating? They won’t. Life is tough, even on a good day, and I fear for young people who have cut their teeth on the notion that any level of effort reaps the same rewards as hard work, determination and dedication.
Back in the days when my children played recreational-level sports, trophies for players were ordered the same day as registration. In other words, if Mom and Dad paid up in full, Junior was guaranteed a trophy at the end-of-season banquet. That always bothered me, although my children loved getting their trophies as much as the others did. Where was the lesson? Where was the encouragement to work harder, to compete, to excel?
You’re probably thinking right about now that I’m just being mean. I’m not. Of course I believe that, if a child puts forth his best effort in anything, he should be congratulated and encouraged. I also believe, however, that children need to learn to recognize the difference between mediocrity and excellence, because there is a difference.
I want my children to understand that, when they get older, their mortgage company is not going to care if they made their best effort to make payments monthly and on time. They want their money, period. I want my children to understand that there really are no shortcuts to achieving their goals. There’s no way around preparation, hard work and sacrifice if they want to live lives of satisfaction, accomplishment and example, for those are the trophies of adulthood.
In an economy that’s shaping up to be a lot less friendly than the one in which I launched my young career and family, I think this notion of recognizing and rewarding hard work and sacrifice are even more important.
What’s the solution? I don’t have all the answers, but I do remember something that’s stuck with me my entire life, a lesson I learned a very young girl.
When I was about 8 years old, my mother enrolled my sister and me in ballet classes. I went to practice. I wore the costumes, but I am not a ballerina, and it showed. Did I participate? Yes. Did I show up for practices and recitals? Yes, because my mother made me. But I wanted to take the shortcut from being an uninterested kid taking ballet classes at my mother’s insistence, to being prima ballerina in the New York City Ballet, all in the same summer. The most graceful move I learned that summer in ballet class was to turn my eyelids inside out, and the girl who taught me that move was a twin. I don’t know which I thought was cooler, the eyelids or the fact that I had a new friend that was a twin.
What really happened in ballet that summer was that I was invariably one of the girls discreetly tucked somewhere on the back row at recitals, because my lack of interest, dedication and (let’s face it) talent were obvious.
That’s OK. I survived and lived to tell about it. My ego was not damaged. I am not in therapy as a result of being a back-row dancer. I found other things at which I excelled (the inside-out eyelids, for example), because everybody has at least one gift, one talent, one thing that they’re really good at. How can a child find that one thing if they’re told that they’re great at everything?
How do you feel about handing out trophies willy-nilly to children, just because we want them to believe that life is fair?
Carole Townsend is also a Gwinnett Daily Post staff correspondent and author of two books: “Southern Fried White Trash” and her newest, “Red Lipstick and Clean Underwear” (released October 2012). Townsend has been quoted on msnbc.com, in the LA Times, USA Today and the Christian Science Monitor, been featured on FOX 5 Television News and CNN, and is often a guest on television and radio shows nationwide. She currently travels throughout the southeast, meeting readers at festivals and book signings, and speaking publicly at various events.