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Jun 25 2012

Do All Our Kids Really Need to Feel Like Winners?

By at 2:54 pm

trophyOn the last day of his after-school tennis program, my 6-year-old came home with a trophy.

“Wow Zack, I’m so proud of you!” I said.

“Why? Everyone got one.” His blasé tone shifted immediately and somewhat manically to intense excitement.

“Oh yeah! Oh yeah!” Zack chanted as he pumped the trophy overhead, just like he’d seen a classmate do at his recent reading awards ceremony.

While Zack is smart enough to be slightly suspicious of the “We’re All Winners!” ruse, he’s still young enough for it to totally work on him. In his mind he’s the best at tennis, reading, basketball, and t-ball, and he has lots of shiny fake metal to prove it. Just like everyone else.

For the next couple of days I watched my son delight in his trophy collection. I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Sure, Zack’s pride is pretty adorable, and ending the year feeling good about himself and the activities he participated in will encourage him to get involved again next year.

But is it really a good idea to make a bunch of spoiled Jewish day school students believe they’re awesome just because they’ve showed up? Are these erroneous awards bringing my son one step closer to turning into the kind of entitled, malaise-filled 20-somethings I keep reading about? The ones who are unemployed and living at home because they’ve never had to struggle or deal with disappointment?

Okay, so maybe I didn’t actually lose sleep over this, but I was very close to Googling an NPR segment on the topic I think I once half-listened to. Before I had time to take that drastic step, though, Benjamin, my 8-year-old, swooped in, once again reminding me how pointless it is to overthink all of this parenting stuff.

His reminder wasn’t verbal. Because of his autism, Benjamin isn’t very verbal. Also because of his autism, Benjamin likes to watch things fall and break. Actually, I should rephrase: Like many boys his age, Benjamin likes to watch things fall and break, but because of his autism he is either unable or unwilling to control this impulse. He also lacks the empathy necessary to fully understand how upset his little brother would be to find his trophies smashed to pieces at the bottom of the stairs.

The truth is, Zack handled it pretty well. “Aw man,” he said when he saw the pile of jagged plastic.

He was deflated, but he didn’t cry or proclaim the injustice of it all. He didn’t demand I punish Benjamin (which I wouldn’t do because it wouldn’t be meaningful to Benjamin). He didn’t even beg me to glue the things back together.

Obviously we’re doing something right.


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