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Participation Medal Syndrome

(1 Vote)

There is an epidemic sweeping through our schools, cities, and country. I call it ‘The Participation Medal Syndrome.’  The idea that we should build a learning environment where failure isn’t possible.

I’m wondering if we’re not causing MORE damage to our children by doing everything to avoid uncomfortable feelings or failure instead of guiding our kids through those experiences to teach the potential of healthy competition.  I’m not a teacher.  Nor am I a parent.  So take what I say as maybe hopeful idealism, but if our job is to prepare our children to face the real world, why would we try to eliminate competition?  Our very economy is built on it.  It is necessary in our world to spread the best ideas, the best products and the most influential thoughts that build our very lifestyles.  So why not teach our kids HOW to compete?

I think the problem with the participation medal culture--the rewards for doing not much more than showing up--is twofold.  First, it tells the kids who didn’t win, that minimal effort is enough to get by.  That success is just sort of owed, not earned.  Why would they work hard for first place if they receive the same benefits that first place does with little or no effort?

Secondly, and perhaps even more destructive is what it does to the natural high achievers.  It DISCOURAGES ambition.  Who would want to work twice as hard to achieve something when someone who didn’t do the work is given the same trophy?  We are pulling down bright, talented ambitious children who could go and do many great things and essentially telling them their effort isn’t necessary.  How dare we.  Our actions sabotage the habit of hard work by pinning on bright, purple participation medals to the whole class.

Here is a reality: regardless of our best efforts, our kids WILL be hurt.  They WILL be let down.  They WILL fail.  Our job isn’t to protect them from the disappointments of the world, but to help them navigate through them, helping them choose hope and encouraging the tenacity required to keep trying.  Letting our kids completely feel and wade through hurt and disappointment may actually end up being of intense value for them in developing a healthy, realistic view of the world.  Imbuing the confidence and tools needed to help them attack it with grace and tact.

I don’t think I’d have to look very far to find evidence for the BENEFITS of failure.  The volcanic, propulsive power behind losing, and letting the loss sink in. Feeling every uncomfortable feeling, but letting that blossom into a doubled effort, a powerful push to not let it happen again.  What a mindset with unending applicative power.

Now, I get why the medal mindset is starting to gain real ground.  There are children who will never be the number one athlete.  Never be the top of the class in grades.  So are they left with the feeling of inadequacy while some of their friends sail away on the confidence boosting trophies?  It’s a big question.

Every student has an inherent, unchangeable dignity.  Also, an often untapped reservoir of potential.  Encouraging that on an individual by individual basis eliminates the harm sometimes wrought by competition while encouraging everyone individually to constantly be pushing for something better.  It’s only me against me.  Them against them.  You scored a 4 out of 10 on the spelling test?  What can we do so next week you’ll score a 5 out of 10?  If you score a five out of ten mom and I will take you to the movies on Friday.  Don’t watch the kid that got 10/10, watch yourself.

I see how this becomes more of a role for the parent because a teacher in a class of thirty may not be able to fully produce that result, but isn’t that what we signed up for when we had kids?  Let’s love our children by encouraging their individual ups and downs instead of demanding that the overall bar of excellence be lowered.


“Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”

—Mihaly Csikszentimihaly