Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Most Important Lesson To Teach Our Kids

I’m not big on bashing posts by other writers. But I read an article the other day that struck me as a bit off. The main message was that the sooner we teach our kids to be competitive the better -- the real world being winner-take-all, and such.

Among other things, the writer took a shot at coaches who try to play all kids equally, and who give out so-called “participation medals.” He writes how nobody ever displays participation medals, and that we’re teaching kids to be losers. And so on and so on.

Reading the blog, you’d think the world is neatly divided into winners and losers, like the start of a bad after-school special.

That I’m still thinking about this article days later tells me it warrants a response. (It had some good points too, like the value of hard work. But the overt focus on training kids to be competitive didn't sit well).

Participation Medal proudly displayed
in my daughter's room. ... Wait!
Am I raising losers! I hate losers!
First, briefly on coaching: There’s certainly an age after which better players will be rewarded with more playing time. That’s the nature of sport. But to say participation medals and equalized playing time hurts kids is just wrong. If you’re coaching anyone age 10 or under, you should do your best to make sure all kids get to play – no matter how much skill they bring to the game. It’s not anti-competition, or making them soft. It’s called teaching them the sport.

Kids that age have a lot of developing and growing to do, which they’ll keep doing through High School. Stick a 10 year old on the bench because you’ve decided they’re too small or too slow, and two years down the road they could gain the physical ability needed, yet lack the experience because of some coach's boneheaded, overly-competitive focus on winning two years prior.

Worse, that kid may have given up the sport already because of a bad experience with a jerk coach who thought he was mentoring in the Hunger Games rather than teaching kids how to field a sharply-hit grounder. Knowing all that sports can teach kids about teamwork, and hard work, and life, we want them to keep playing – all of them.

Are Competitive People Happier?

The truth is, we don’t really have to teach kids to be competitive.  Most enter the world with a bit of competitiveness in them already. Think of a two year old who won’t let anyone touch his toy. Or consider when you ask a five year old to do something for you. All you have to do is follow it with the words, “I’ll time you,” and you’ll see them hurry. We are natural competitors.

In all aspect of their young lives, kids are bombarded with messages that have competition at the core. On the playground, in class, and even in reading groups; kids are ranked, measured and tested.

Around them, constantly, are life lessons about the spoils of winning and being the best. Star athletes make millions. Celebrities deified. Whoever gets the most votes becomes president (usually).

Our culture forces the thought of winners and losers on us at every turn, from the Super Bowl champs and Dancing with the Stars, to the differences in the kinds of cars we drive and the sizes of homes people own. Should we really add to that by making competitiveness a central focus of our parenting?

And, a bigger question, are competitive people happier? Maybe in the moment of winning they are -- for that moment. Maybe the chronic winners among us get more stuff, find security, and attain a higher level of consciousness. But I know lots of overly-competitive people who are -- to put it gently -- a bit hard to be around. Putting it less gently, they're kind of a-holes. Does the world really need more of those?

Maybe rather than competitiveness, we should teach our kids things they might not otherwise learn in this often-hostile and overly-competitive world; things that will enable them to find a happiness they can’t get from simply winning or conquering or buying.

Lets Teach Boys to be Kind, Girls to be Confident

I believe there are two things we need to teach our children that will benefit them far more than just teaching them to be more competitive. The first is to be kind; the second is to be confident. All kids should be taught both, but one, I believe, is the primary lesson we should teach to little boys; the other the primary lesson we should teach little girls.

Before anyone gets angry about that seeming sexist division, I think it’s obvious to all of us with both sons and daughters that they do come out of the womb a little different. And once out here, they are certainly exposed to different messages, pushing them in different ways.

These two lessons are meant to counteract the nature and nurture happening already.

Boys should be taught to be kind above all else. They’ll learn to be competitive, that they should be strong, and that they need to work hard to be successful in life (or network hard). They get taught this from everything else thrust upon them in their young lives, from every direction. They’ll race their friends, have snowball fights, and arm wrestle. They’ll be given fake guns to shoot and footballs to chuck, and they'll be told not to cry. 

The world around will mold them into all those things that we use to define a “man,” and conspire to judge them accordingly.

But, if not taught, they may never learn to be kind to others. Anyone who’s seen a two year old squeeze his sister’s arm or heard how teenage boys talk to each other or been to college knows kindness is something that has to be drilled into boys for it to stick.

As for our girls, parents most need to teach them to be confident. They’ll need that confidence to survive this world, which has the propensity to tear them down, piece by piece. 

Consider the type of competition often forced upon young women, all of it focused on their bodies, on acceptance by peers, or on winning the affection of men, and all of it potentially destructive. If not taught to be confident in who they are, this competitive world can be an extremely dangerous place for a young woman.

Parents must teach them that it is okay to be strong, to be independent, to be smart, no matter what others would have them believe. And that, above all else, they should believe in themselves.

Certainly, all kids – boys and girls -- need to be taught to be both kind and confident. But, there's no doubt how emphasizing these specific lessons for boys and girls will help them become better men and women.

When you think how much better these lessons prepare our kids to be happy and productive adults than the lesson of competitiveness, suddenly equalized playing time and participation medals start to make sense. We're not teaching them to be good losers, we're teaching them to be good humans.

With these skills, they’ll be able to survive this competitive world without being completely consumed by winning or utterly defeated by losing. They'll also know that the world isn't divided into winners who work harder and losers who are just lazy. Rather, time and chance and opportunity plays a part in all our lives.

If they learn these things, maybe they’ll chose to measure their own success differently than how so much of society tells them it should be measured. And maybe they’ll put value in things other than just winning the game, or owning the biggest house, or having the highest paying job, or earning the most medals -- participation or otherwise.

Those who do, I believe, are more likely to find happiness. And isn’t that the ultimate competition?

Like the article? Know others who may enjoy reading it? Please share it using the buttons below or to the left. Thank you.


Dave Lesser said...

I'm kind of a competitive person, but I'm with you. I read the article you linked and it set up a very black & white world. As you go into, children need to develop their skills before they can "compete." There's nothing worse than when a kid quits because he or she is made to feel like they're not good enough. I like when my daughter is competitive and wants to win. But, more important than that, I like when she wants to try. The winning (and losing) will come.

Matt Hurst said...

I used to think along the lines of "participation ribbon? C'mon - no one is happy about 8th place." But this is a different side - and a well-thought out argument - about how that can affect kids when they're younger. Thanks for the insight!

Cort Ruddy said...


Thanks for the read. I lean competitive, too. And put great value in what sports can teach kids. So important that they are encouraged to try. Thanks again.

Cort Ruddy said...


Thanks for the read and the kind words. Good to know I'm making a little sense -- at least this time.

Sean said...

I've often thought along these lines, and one of my primary goals in raising my sons will be to raise them with empathy and love.

However, I think the most important part of what you said is the need to instill both kindness AND confidence (though I don't necessarily agree on the gender divide, having grown up a decidedly under-confident boy).

Someone who only has kindness is a doormat.

Someone who has only confidence is a jerk.

Someone with neither is a nihilist.

Only someone with both can grow up and be a useful person (IMO, of course).

Cort Ruddy said...


Very good point. Totally agree that both boys and girls need both. Just my thoughts on where the emphasis should be for each. Thanks for reading.

Larry said...

I appreciate the angle you took here and you bring up some good points. Maybe, the participation medal has some merits.
A certain kindness and sensitivity of yours comes through in this article.

Unknown said...

Hi Cort,

Great post and thanks for reading my article. It's nice to see your perspective. I agree with a lot of what you're saying. In younger children I am 100% in line with your way of thinking. I think kids need to have many different positive experiences. The more they experience the more open their picture of the world is as they grow older.

The main point of my article was in life we don't have referee's, we don't have people fighting for our "equal" opportunities. We have to go after those opportunities with all the competitive spirit that we can muster. I would much rather hire a young person who's shown they can go after what they want rather than a young person who thinks they deserve a job.

Appreciate you sharing and taking up a pen.


Cort Ruddy said...


Thanks for reading my post and responding. Glad to know you agree with much of what I wrote. Likewise, I agreed with some of your points and certainly enjoyed your writing. It made me think, and I appreciate that.

I certainly think we should prepare our kids to survive in this competitive world – as a dad, and a coach. But I also want them to have the skills to improve it. You say there aren’t referees. Aren’t we all the referees? Wouldn’t it be better if the aggressive a-holes didn’t get the promotion, lead the discussion or win the girl’s heart? I think so. Others will certainly disagree.

But I really think this discussion on the virtues and pitfalls of competition, especially when it comes to raising our kids, is a worthy one. Thanks for starting it. And hopefully you got a few clicks out of it.