My fourth grader and second grader just finished six weeks of community basketball. There were no practices except for game day. The games were so loosely refereed; the games were more like scrimmages than games. There was a lot of teaching and the coaches were fabulous – but it was definitely not competitive. My fourth grader’s big accomplishment during her six weeks – she was finally able to dribble the ball down the floor without double dribbling. My son’s big accomplishment – he finally took a shot at the basket. No, he didn’t make it. At the last game, participation certificates were handed out; sports drinks were handed out; and a shiny medal was handed out – to every player. These medals continue the cheapening of achievement our society is experiencing.
To be honest, I was actually quite upset. My children didn’t do ANYTHING to earn a medal. Sure they showed up, had fun, ran up and down the court, listened to their coaches, and learned a bit of basketball. It was a good program and a good experience. But nowhere, in all that, had a medal been earned.
This is not the only community program to do this. Awarding medals for participation has become so common place, that the medals have no meaning to the children. They know they didn’t do anything extraordinary to deserve or earn the medal. In fact, the other medals my children have received for participation have become play things that younger siblings find on treasure hunts. Several of the medals have been lost or broken and none are valued by my children who received them.
Contrast that with the spelling bee medal my daughter won in her school spelling. She was the junior level spelling bee champion for her elementary school for two years in a row. She competed well for those awards. She practiced for hours each night for months prior to the competition. She spelled words I had not heard of prior to her practicing them. She went five or six rounds with another young girl in order to decide who would be the spelling bee’s champion. And when she received her awards, she knew she had won something of value. Her medal and trophy are displayed proudly in her room, kept up high and away from little fingers. The medal was worn proudly the rest of the day at school. My daughter wanted to call all of her grandparents to tell them what she had done. She had worked hard, won a tough competition, and was proud of herself.
My second grader is equally proud of his region champion Destination Imagination medal he won last school year. He, my daughter, and four other elementary students worked for months on creative problem solving projects. They spent hours together planning, preparing, and practicing for the Destination Imagination competition. They won their region competition and received medals for their efforts. Those medals were earned through hard work, dedication, and true achievement. My son wore his DI medal to school the next day, and it too is proudly and safely displayed. He knows he earned that medal and it is very valuable to him.
My point is not every action is worth a medal. Not everyone earns a medal. And giving medals and awards in order to make children feel good about themselves is actually harming their ability to function in the real world. No, people don’t deserve the corner office at work – they earn it through hard work.
No, students don’t just deserve college scholarships – they earn them through hard work. No, accredited universities don’t just hand out Bachelors, Masters, or Doctorate degrees – these have to be earned through hard work. No, life isn’t going to give everyone a medal simply for showing up. And teaching our children that they deserve these things because they showed up teaches them that mediocrity is rewarded. They will stop trying to do their best because it doesn’t matter – they’ll get the reward anyway – and we are setting them up to fail in their future endeavors as adults.
My daughter’s spelling bee medal actually doesn’t look as fancy as her basketball medal. And someone unfamiliar with the level of work required to earn these medals would have a hard time knowing which one was worth more. The same is true about my son’s DI medal. Also, after receiving so many participation medals, my kids have started to doubt if the medals they have truly earned are actually worth anything.
Life isn’t about everyone getting the same things. There are opportunities for everyone, depending on their strengths and talents. There are so many different activities for people to try, and not everyone will be spectacular in them all. But everyone has the opportunity to find their niche and be spectacular there, if they are willing to work hard enough.
So, please coaches, teachers, and other adults interacting with my children – don’t give them awards that are meaningless. Don’t give them medals for showing up. Let my children learn that these things are earned through hard work and effort. That way we’ll stop cheapening achievement, because that’s what we’re doing. We are devaluing all awards, all medals, all achievements by handing out so many that are unearned.
By trying to make everyone feel good about themselves, and giving out meaningless awards (meaningless because no effort was required to earn them), we are making it so no award is worth anything, no achievement is special, no one is talented, no one is spectacular. And that’s a type of equality that does no one any good.