Who Wins When Everyone Gets a Trophy?

Perhaps you’re a soccer or softball mom. Me, I was a crew mom. Weekend after weekend, I drove to rivers hours away to watch my daughter race. Usually, I scouted out points along the bank that maximized the seconds I’d get to see Becky row by in a blur of determination and focus. As I hope she understood, my interest was in seeing her compete—not in the outcome of the race.  Some days, Becky and her boat mates placed first. Other days, they lost by the length of a nose. All days, they took pride in one another’s effort and shared commitment to doing their best. 

So, when I read recently that a Florida high school had awarded valedictory honors to 27 of its 370 students, it pressed a hot button in me. Emblematic of all the bogus athletic awards, contrived school honors, and grade-inflated report cards pushed our kids’ way, the ploy captured perfectly the everyone-deserves-a-trophy mentality that informs—and infects—so much of what we teach our children today.

It starts early. Ribbons for showing up at the pool. Trophies for participating in Pee Wee baseball games. Stepping-up ceremonies. Graduation after graduation ceremonies, featuring prizes for anything and everything. By high school, our kids are so accustomed to fabricated hoopla that it’s hard to make anything feel momentous. And so: 27 valedictorians.

But when number one is recalculated to equal more than 7 percent of a class, how does this “everybody wins” fiction help prepare our kids for a world where everybody most assuredly does not win every time? How does it teach them to handle pressure? Rebound from disappointment? Gain perspective? Cope? Most important, how does it teach them to reap their own sense of reward from an experience?

For the student who actually racked up the top grade-point average, I’d wager that he or she felt the glow of that accomplishment diminished by so much shared glory. Had my own daughter been told, “Hey, it was only a thousandth of a second, so share the podium,” I’m certain she would have felt robbed. I can only guess what it would have done to her sense of motivation.

As for the 26 kids whose GPA’s fell a fraction shy of the true valedictorian’s, their manufactured triumph suggests an even more disturbing message: Number one is the only spot worth celebrating. What’s wrong with being number two? Number ten? Number whatever? When did we stop teaching our children that the important thing is to do your best and take pride in the effort, no matter what the outcome? When did we cut the lesson from their life curriculum that emphasizes the importance of celebrating other people’s achievements? When did we decide that shielding our children from disappointment was more important than teaching them how to navigate the boulders that life will throw them?

Those 26 extra valedictorians were not rewarded by their school’s feverish need to hand them a “win.” Rather, they were deprived of a golden opportunity to learn one of life’s most crucial lessons: at the end of the day, you have to define success for yourself.

Jill Smolowe

Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents