Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Children Can Take Defeat Much Better Than Parents by Dr. Alan Singer

Does every child deserve a trophy just for showing up? If a child enjoys sports but her team loses, should that negatively impact her self-esteem? This column was published in the Home News Tribune on 12/18/07 ...........and it's not just about sports.

In last month's column on parent rage, I described parents and coaches who pressure children into winning at youth sports, rather than letting them enjoy themselves and exercise. This column is devoted to a related topic — winning and self-esteem.

It seems that a significant number of parents these days are under the impression that if a child plays on a team that loses, the child will be hurt or distressed. And that will have a negative impact on the child's self-esteem. Overprotective parents, also known as helicopter parents for hovering above their children, might think that they can orchestrate their children's lives enough to always keep them happy and cheerful. I'll ask two questions: Is this really possible? And, is it beneficial for children?

No parent wants a child walking around thinking poorly of himself or herself. But losing a game in team competition does not make the child a "loser." It is a parent's responsibility to discuss this with the child. And children are resilient; they will survive nicely. Even if it were possible to protect your child from sadness, disappointment and frustration, isn't it a lousy way to prepare your child for the real world? When you set children free in the world expecting only joy and success, it is going to be hard for them to fend for themselves.

As parents, we have to think of our role in creating this monster. "Sports today mirror our heavy emphasis on individual achievement and hyper-competitiveness," explains Dr. Margaret Carlisle Duncan of the University of Wisconsin. "Parents can't help but reflect this," contends Bob Katz in the October 2000 Parent Magazine. "It applies undue pressure on children to expect them to achieve more and compete more while trying to protect them from failure at all costs."

Susanne Sievert, in an essay titled "It's Not Just How We Play That Matters" (Newsweek, March 19, 2001) observed, "I've noticed this trend a lot lately — adults refusing to let children fail at something. It's as if we grown-ups believe that kids are too fragile to handle defeat." Maybe it is a reflection of some adults' lack of ability to handle defeat.

A research study looked at mystery writers and their readers' self-esteem. At first, I thought it might be a spoof until I saw that it was written by Eric Nagourney for The New York Times Science Section. "A new study finds that people with low self-esteem don't seem to like it much when a story ends with a twist," he wrote. "In a whodunit, they like the who to be the person they suspected all along." Sorry, folks, but life is a bit of a mystery too, and it doesn't always turn out the way you want it to. Should whodunits with unexpected endings be required to have warning labels on the jacket covers?

Last, and most important, the children themselves know "that if everyone wins, winning isn't everything; in fact it's nothing," contends Mark Morgenstern in a November 2001 Child Magazine article. Are you familiar with "participation trophies"? Your child receives a trophy just for showing up, not a team shirt or a hat, but a trophy to show that everyone is a winner and to give kids a self-esteem boost. Some leagues are now stopping this practice.

"The trophy backlash is part of what many experts see as a broader reaction to a culture of coddling," explains Nancy Ann Jeffrey in a March 11, 2005, Wall Street Journal article. "Some educators and psychologists," she relates, "argue that recent moves designed in part to build kids' self-esteem, like giving partial credit for incorrect math answers at school, removes kids' incentive to push themselves."

I was surprised to read about a large-scale research study on this topic, done by Michigan State University professors Martha Ewing and Vern Seefelt. They asked 28,000 children ages 10 to 18 to rank their motivations for playing sports. Responses included having fun, learning skills, and being with friends. Winning a trophy did not even make the top 15.

Mark Morgenstern summed it up as follows, "We want our kids to do the best they can: to show up, to practice, to study, to try. If they triumph as a result, that's great. If they don't, and usually they won't, we'll give them a pep talk and a fortifying snack and send them out to try again. That's life. And they don't deserve a medal for it."

Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's blog http://www.familythinking.com/ or e-mail DrAlanSinger@aol.com