Kids & Competition: Should We Always Let Them Win?

kids and competition

I just went to a fair with my kids, where all four of them participated in a hula-hoop contest. My children are not world-class hula-hoopers. They are mediocre at best and didn't outlast the winner. It was just something fun for them to do.

But guess what? They all won participant ribbons! So forever we can celebrate and remember their mediocrity at rotating a plastic hoop around their hips.

Sigh. They loved the ribbons. They smiled and proudly showed them to Dad, who secretly rolled his eyes at me afterward. There's something really annoying about the fact that we've created a culture where we can't allow kids NOT to win. We don't want our kids to think they are less than the best.

The result is that we've created a sense of entitlement in them. They participate in something and are disappointed not to get recognition when it's over. They don't learn how to lose or how to deal with momentary insignificance. This can be a big barrier against self-discovery.

Psychologist Sara Dimerman, author of Character Is the Key: How to Unlock the Best in Our Children and Ourselves, has written extensively about kids and competition. "Unfortunately, if a child always has to win to feel good about herself, she might actually be at greater risk for feeling bad. Learning how to cope with placing second or even last goes a long way toward boosting a child’s self-esteem. Children who know their own strengths and how to focus on their personal best often develop a healthier sense of self-worth than those who always need to win."

Real life is not about winning every competition. Unless you're LeBron James, you don't grow up getting trophies in every sport. (Well, maybe he did growing up, but it hasn't always happened as an adult.)

The hula-hoop competition of life doesn't hand out participant ribbons.

That was a weird sentence. But it's true. There are distinct benefits to NOT winning all the time. Losing increases determination to do better next time. It makes you practice more. It makes you study harder. Losing can be the best motivator for kids to put effort into getting better ... or to realize that maybe the hula hoop isn't for them, and they need to try something else.

I understand how awards can be great motivators. Kids like be recognized, just like adults do. But automatic awards can cause kids to under-perform because, if everyone wins something, they don't have to do their best.

In my experience, when kids lose at something but aren't used to experiencing that kind of difficulty, it generally leads them to a couple of negative outcomes. One, they might quit. Because the pain or disappointment or frustration is too hard, and they don't know how to handle it. Or two, because they don't want to experience failure again, they turn to more drastic measures. They cheat. They play dirty. The fear of failure is so uncomfortable that they'd rather cut corners so they don't have to experience it again.

Kids need to learn how to handle failure. They need experience at losing -- and losing gracefully.

We should be teaching our kids that success comes from hard work, patience, and determination. That recognition comes from doing things well. That rewards come from perseverance and trying again if they fail. If they get rewarded for simply showing up, they learn nothing. 

My kids know when they're good at something. They also notice when someone else is better than them at something. So if I'm constantly telling them they're the best at one thing and it's clear that they absolutely are not, then will they learn not to trust what I say? Am I creating an environment where my opinion must be taken with a grain of salt? Maybe. "If my parents tell me I'm the best at everything when I know I'm not, how will I know when they are actually telling me the truth?" 

Good question.

Kids love competition, but they need to know how to handle winning and losing at it. Winning is the easy part. Let's teach our kids to be better losers. It helps them be better sports. It helps them learn to handle their emotions. It makes them better people -- the kind of kids who won't throw a fit or flip over the board game or fling a baseball bat into the crowd out of frustration. It helps them learn to be good competitors who will congratulate the winning team and be happy for other people.

That's what I want my kids to be, and I'm pretty sure a wall of participation ribbons in their bedroom isn't gonna help.




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nonmember avatar Michael

Kids (over 6) are just like anyone else, they want to be treated with respect. If you wouldn't give an adult a participation ribbon or let them win then don't do it for a kid.

That said, for hard things like a biathalon or a 10k adults get participation ribbons all the time (the t-shirts/bumper stickers), so in those cases its fine.

Jacee... Jacee2348

Yeah, there was no "letting my kids win" in my house. Even at Go Fish, it was on like Donkey Kong! :) If they were going to win, they had to earn that win. We're all competitive but know how to be good losers too. I never liked "participation" awards for kids.....

P.She... P.Sherman

I have never let my son win at anything. Sometimes he wins (that boy is a master at Jenga) and the look on his face when he does is priceless. He knows that we play hard in this house, so when he wins, he is so proud of himself for actually earning that win. Kids need to learn how to lose. Like any kid, my son likes to win, but he isn't a sore loser. He congratulates the winner and knows that he has to play better next time. Baseball season just finished and everyone at least got a participation award. We threw out his participation award and hung up the one he actually earned.

nonmember avatar KC

Does age play a factor into any of this? Like maybe we give ribbons to 3 and 4 year olds so that they get excited about even TRYING something new. And then as they get older we introduce the harder concepts? Just thinking out loud. Where is the right age to transition from cheering the toddler on/rewarding for every little thing (hello, first steps, self feeding, potty training) to teaching the big kids to suck it up? Or do we cheer but not give a tangible award? Is telling them "good job for trying" no longer appropriate if they try and fail?

nonmember avatar twelvedaysold

I guess the only reason I don't feel that this is very weird is that when I've signed up for a race or event, I usually get a tshirt. I obviously didn't win anything real or place, but it's just a sign of being part of it. I suppose the real issue is when there isn't actually a goal but all the kids are "winners." Getting a token for showing up doesn't seem that bad to me, though.

Wendi Decker-Miller

This: "Because the pain or disappointment or frustration is too hard, and they don't know how to handle it."

I work at university. Guess what happens when these kids who always win and never fail come here? They fail. And they fail BIG TIME. They absolutely cannot handle failure or even coming in second place. Some try suicide. Some drink it away. I watched students who had no business being in one academic program enter it and fail out. Why? Because there was never the discovery of "maybe this isn't for me".

I deal with this every day. Some of the student figure out how to make a go of it, of not being the best and the winner all the time. They're the ones who actually do well not just in college but post-college. We watch them graduate and take on challenging new jobs. The ones who experienced failure, had someone tell them no, learned what was best for them.

There is so little self awareness in people today. So so little. Because God forbid someone tell a kid hey, that's just not for you. Try this instead.

nonmember avatar Mary Clare

Did anyone hear this story about teaching kids about winning/losing on Morning Edition recently?

I have to agree with the experts in the NPR piece -- helping kids deal with losing, putting it in context of their talents and focusing on improvements is necessary. It can be a blow to self esteem at a certain point in development when a child figures out that he/she is not good at something. Still showing kids how working on getting better at ______(fill in the skill) is the most important thing. Helping him/her refocus on what he/she is good at is another way to help them learn to deal with losing.

nonmember avatar Emma

I agree with most of this Kristen... but I do think that giving out participation ribbons is a little different than saying everyone won. Isn't it good to encourage kids (or anyone) to participate, especially in something they have very little chance of coming doing well in? Giving them something to acknowledge that hey, you were part of this thing and you tried, isn't saying you were the absolute best. Like you said, kids know when they suck at something and someone else was better. The real prize is knowing that you were actually good at it and you actually won, and that's not a feeling you get from a participation ribbon in my experience.

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