You’re All Special, Wonderful, Winners

Posted by on August 29, 2008

I recently threw a birthday party for my daughter. The shindig was held at a local park, because I’m cheap becoming a firm believer in the old-fashioned birthday party that doesn’t involve commercial characters, venues or entertainment or cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

In other words? I’m no longer keeping up with the Joneses or even trying.

No, this party was going to be a total throwback to my own youth where play and games were the primary staples of party entertainment and thus, I planned an assortment of activities including musical chairs, sack races and a hula hoop contest. For the winners of the games, I bought some small, fun prizes, in addition to the parting gift that everyone would receive.

So, games ensued and of course, there were winners — winners who would get prizes for their efforts because winning multiple elimination rounds in a sack race on a hot day? Is no easy feat and certainly deserves some recognition. Right?

So when it was time to hand out the prizes to said winners, I was suddenly besieged by ten little girls all clamoring to reach into my prize bag, “I want a prize! I want a prize!”

I tried to calmly and gently explain that everyone would be going home with a goody that was equally as desirable as the game prizes; that nobody would be leaving empty-handed.

Well, that explanation wasn’t good enough. I actually saw tears beginning to well up in one girl’s eyes and seeing as crying is usually contagious among young girls, I made the only decision I could and gave prizes to everyone because, let’s face it, a bunch of crying children at a party is a major buzzkill.

Unfortunately, this left no more prizes for the other games and rather ironically, prizeless games are not a huge draw. The crowd of girls dispersed to go play instead.

Later that day, while reflecting on whether I made a mistake in planning games with prizes, it occurred to me that the girls, mostly eight or almost eight  years old didn’t seem to understand that in a game, not everyone wins — that only the winner wins. And while I’m not a particularly competitive person by nature, I do believe that striving to win, to want to win, to want to excel, is not a bad thing.

However, it seems these days, in our misguided quest to make everyone the same and to protect from low self-esteem or hurt feelings, we’ve actually done our kids a serious disservice because in real life? We’re NOT all winners ALL the time. Life is, for the most part, a meritocracy based on our skills and abilities to perform well in some way, or in comparison to others.

I’m also of the opinion that losing gracefully is actually a skill that must be taught and mastered through experience. When we don’t win, we should, in theory, be compelled to try harder next time, to improve ourselves or at the very least, be okay with not being number one.

I don’t believe you can give someone self-esteem and you can’t nurture it by shielding them from losing or by telling them they’re a perfect and unique person just as they are.

Sure, that may be actually true because we ARE all unique and special in our own way but just telling kids that, from birth on, does nothing for them except breed a generation of mediocre underachievers with serious entitlement issues.

I am special and unique, like a snowflake, and that alone is reason to let me into your college or give me a promotion. I don’t need to work harder or try harder or improve myself because I am perfect just as I am.

That’s such crap.

Would Olympic athletes be compelled to be the best athlete they can be if everyone was handed a gold medal for participating? Would graduating from Harvard with honors mean anything if everyone graduated with honors regardless of their academic performance? I know those are extreme analogies but that’s how so many things are handled these days.

A somewhat related example… On a stormy day last year, in lieu of going outside, the first graders had a dance-off to burn off some energy and have some fun. My daughter, who apparently has some mad moves and skillz, won the dance-off, as voted by teachers and fellow students.

When she was presented with a little trinket, cries of cheating from the other girls ensued. How the hell do you cheat in a dance off?

Well, you don’t — but some of the other kids were upset that THEY didn’t win, or that they ALL didn’t win and thus, like me at the birthday party, the teacher opted to keep the peace by letting everyone visit the treasure box for a prize rather than deal with non-winner fallout and possible parental intervention.

Now, I’m not personally opposed to kids getting something from the treasure box. Whatever. I don’t really care. But I do oppose what was being reinforced to the kids about life and winning and losing and self-esteem.

Now to be fair, my daughter is also not a gracious loser in anything. She’s naturally competitive and loves to win. BUT the times she’s come home grousing about not winning something and that it’s not fair, I’ve told her straight up that you win some and you lose some; that having fun while doing your best is the key to enjoying competition. Has it sunk in yet? Meh. Maybe.

But am I actively contributing to the next generation of whiny, mediocre underachievers who feel the world owes them a medal just for showing up? HELL NO.

I don’t know exactly who is responsible for this cultural shift from meritocracy to whinocracy but something tells me that it’s largely fueled by well-intentioned parents who, in a misguided attempt to protect their kids, are shielding them from every possible hurt or disappointment and insist that everyone from coaches to teachers do the same OR ELSE!!!

I know some will think I’m a bad, bad person for having competitive games at a party and for thinking only winners should get prizes. I also know some will agree with me completely. I’d love to hear your point of view, whatever it may be.


  • Tuesday says:

    It is the same with sports teams ALL getting a trophy or not keeping score.
    Not keeping score? What is the point? They can run around my backyard instead of me shelling out $90 to be on a team and learn to work together to win or lose.
    When you lose you still go shake the other teams hands and say “good game”.

    That is what I want my kdis to learn, but how can they when I am the only one teaching it?

  • Kia says:

    I am soooo with you on this one. I tend to play games with my Little Man and actually (gasp!) TRY to win. He’s got to learn it somewhere. It makes me want to barf sometimes, this everybody-wins attitude. No they don’t. Without a winner, there are only losers. Therefore, someone does indeed have to win. BLah. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this is ridiculous!

  • Desiree says:

    I had this same issue with my daughter’s 8th birthday. We did a sleep over party with several games in which the girls could win a prize. The girls acted the same way as well!

    It drives me insane that we’ve gotten to the point where we just give all the kids a trophy regardless of their performance. The WHOLE POINT of performing well is to receive the PRIZE!!

    It frightens me… what will society be like in 20-30 years? 40 years? I’m sure this comment has been made before. No doubt our parents & grandparents before them said the same thing. And look where we are.

    You truly do reap what you sow.

  • SciFi Dad says:

    Gah! This is one of my pet peeves with “modern” parenting. Not everyone is a winner, you have to earn success, not have it handed to you. The process being followed cheapens success, and reduces drive. Yes, it sucks to lose, but sometimes, life sucks. I’m not advocating “second place is the first loser” or “trying your best only matters if you didn’t win” (both of which are stolen from the No Fear Gear line of tees from the 80s/90s) but I am saying I agree with you.

  • Tanya says:

    “But am I actively contributing to the next generation of whiny, mediocre underachievers who feel the world owes them a medal just for showing up? HELL NO.”

    AMEN!! I totally concur w/you and the previous commenters – when everyone’s special, nobody is.

  • Rose says:

    So I’m not a parent, but I’m going to comment anyway… I was watching the Olympics (swimming) with my 6 year old nephew and we were watching one of the medal ceremonies when he asked me why only 3 people got medals. I explained that they were the winners, and only the winners get medals. He exclaimed, “that’s not fair!” I told him that even though it’s a big honor to represent your country in the Olympics and that everyone was proud of their country’s atheletes, only the top 3 people get medals. He couldn’t get over it. He then wanted to know why 3 people got medals instead of just one, since only one person is really the winner. I explained about gold, silver and bronze medals and how only the 1st place Olympian gets the gold medal. He explained how everyone on his soccer team got trophies. When I told him that it’s not possible for everyone to be a winner all of the time, and that it’s important to recognize the person who practiced the hardest and finished first, he did not look happy about it. It made me kind of sad.

  • Cathy says:

    I think you’re right. Competition is a good thing, and how else are kids going to learn if they aren’t exposed to it and deal with consequences. My son HATES losing. It can be stressful to play board games with him, and sometimes I think I should rig it so he wins, but I don’t because he’s got to learn.

  • Rose – your comment made me think of what I tell my students…”Fair means everyone gets what they need and what they earn – NOT that everyone gets the same thing.”

    Izzy – Amen, sistah!

  • Laurin says:

    I once asked my son’s playdate who won the soccer game he just came from and his Dad jumped in nervously to point out that they don’t have a winner and that they just want all the kids to have fun. WTF? I felt like I’d failed the playdate parental worthiness test

    I object. I was not raised this way. Dealing with disappointment is a necessary coping skill we must all learn.

    Izzy, I think you are special and unique for writing this.

    • IzzyMom says:

      Someone linked to this post which made me want to go back and re-read it…

      This is the funniest fucking comment. Sorry if I didn’t tell you that before. (your medal is in the mail!)

  • Cara says:

    I completely agree. We shield our children from all of the bad without realizing that you can not appreciate the good in a vacuum. You don’t have winners without losers.

  • Amy@UWM says:

    We are all special snowflakes, but we all can’t win at everything. Learning to deal with our “losses” is just as important as winning. Completely with you.

  • Danielle in Iowa says:

    Ironically, grade inflation at Harvard is so bad that most people do graduate with honors from there (this is probably the result of the same kids who expect prizes whining their way to good grades!)

  • Aprylsantics says:

    A to the G to the R to the double E.

  • PAPA says:

    Funny the irony of you posting this and winning a writing award on Five Star Friday on the SAME day. Congrats! And, yes, success must absolutely be earned. I’m not going to lie: it feels good being recognized and you better believe if I get skipped over, I’m only going to try harder next time. The aim to be the best often brings out the best, and sometimes we can all benefit.

  • badgermama says:

    I completely agree with you!!! It is nice for all children to be, and to feel, appreciated. But we are training them not to understand the value of competition. I feel like schools are depriving the kids who do shine with some particular talent from the chance to get recognition. Anyway, I see it in many situations, whether party games, school plays, and what have you.

  • MLD says:

    I could not have said it any better. Did you hear the deal with the kid last week that’s a baseball player? I think it was in Conn. He was banned from playing because he WAS TOO GOOD. 11 year olds. Taught by their ignorant players that no one can be better than them and should be banned. It makes me sick. My kids get the drill from me daily: everyone is not always the winner and THE big one around here: LIFE IS NOT FAIR. This is my 6 year old’s biggest whine lately….”it’s not faaaaaair.” Yeah, well, so what. That’s life!

  • MLD says:

    oops, that was supposed to say their ignorant PARENTS. lol

  • Ugh. Reminds me of watching a bunch of kids playing musical chairs and when one kids was out, all the moms cheerfully yelled, “You WIN!”

    Duh, the kids knew they didn’t win. So silly.

  • Megan says:

    I was raised by a touchy-feely type who hated that anyone would ever feel badly about anything at any time. Competition in her mind was mean, vile and horrible and served only to make people unhappy. I’ve raised my kids to know that life IS competitive and there are real contests out there with real results for people who are talented and committed. They also know that they won’t always be the best at everything – that what they can do is be the best they can.

    Working at a university I see constant evidence of the “everybody wins” approach. Students wail about it not being FAIR that they are marked down for poor grammar or lack of logical argument. They stomp their feet and claim the teacher doesn’t like them or doesn’t understand them when they get a lower grade than they want. And they really bad ones? Even when things are explained, even when the whole system is transparent, still refuse to believe that there is something THEY can do to turn things around.

    Sorry… I suppose this is a bit of a hot issue for me! So short answer – you’re spot on.

  • Chris says:

    This is why I love this blog and your commenters. You rock with this observation. And your commentors, man I wish all of your children, is you have one, attend my school.

    I just spoke to a couple of parents today informing them that what good is self-esteem if their son can’t read or write.

  • Right on, Izzy. My son had a chess tournament recently and they gave each participator a medal, but the winner got a kickass trophy. One winner, because one person WON. Although there was grousing, it gave my son something to work for, he’s even more determined to bring home a trophy of his own, he works harder and practices with a goal. why would I take that from him? It would steal his sense of pride and accomplishment.

  • So then we have successfully raised a generation of young adults who think they should be rewarded merely for showing up. Promotions or raises based on merit have no value, and everyone is rewarded simply for doing that for which they were hired.

    I think this sense of entitlement is CRAP, and I refuse to cater to it with my kids. I flat out REFUSE.

    No one wins all the time. Hard work is rewarded; laziness is reprimanded.

    The End.

    (climbing off my soap box now)

  • lynette says:

    I am totally with you on this one. You win some, you lose some. The End.

  • You get mad props from me for being so realistic. We’ll also be teaching our son that sometimes it’s just tough titty if you don’t win. Heartbreaking? Sure. But he will be so much more grounded for it. I hope.

  • Gina.Maria says:

    This mamby-pamby parenting that goes on today just pisses me off. Personally, I would have let them all sulk about not getting prizes but I’m not the most popular mom on the block, anyway. Wouldn’t want to be. I tell it like it is. I don’t try to tell my kids that they’re brilliant because they scribbled something that barely resembles a dog – I ask them to describe the parts of the dog and I praise their effort then help them to make a better dog the next time. If they lose a game (which happens often when we play Wii against them) we have one of our family’s many lessons in good sportsmanship. I think kids are more resilient than we give them credit for and as long as we’re not mistreating them, they’ll “get over it.”

  • Gina.Maria says:

    @MLD: You should read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. It’s long and complex but a beautiful story.

  • I agree with you completely.

    One thing I think is acceptable for really young ones is to have some sort of small participation recognition but then prizes for winners.

    Maybe they would have handled it better if all the prizes were given out (along with the goody bags) at the end?

    But, yes, in terms of the philosophy and ideas behind your post, I am in complete agreement. It is an important lesson for children to learn.

    We should encourage sharing, and effort, and sportsmanship…AND also excellence.

  • Stephanie says:

    So true! I posted on my site not too long ago about how I’m not always “fair” to my kids. Not always fair by their terms, of course.

    It’s reasonable to acknowledge good effort, but saying everyone wins or is just as good is nuts.

    Similarly, one of the shows that my daughter used to like drove me nuts. One of the typical lines was “I did my best, and that’s the best I can do!” Annoyed me, because where’s the drive to learn to do better yet? Satisfaction with good enough is not the lesson I’m after.

  • Memarie Lane says:

    Isn’t this why communism failed? Why work hard or try hard if there’s no especial reward?

    My kids aren’t old enough yet to have been exposed to this kind of nonsense. I guess we’ll have to be vigilant about our choices when it comes time for soccer and cub scouts.

  • Angie Fisher says:

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  • Jodi says:

    I definitely agree with you on this. The real world just doesn’t work that way, and kids have to learn that at some point.

    Good for you for planning a traditional fun party! I miss those!

  • Glenda says:

    Loved your post. I am a mom of 2 with 1 on the way. We are firm believers in the winner/ loser situation, Don’t want to be a loser next time – try harder. Thanks for your wonderful blog!!

  • Asianmommy says:

    I’m with you. Kids need to learn to deal with disappointment.

  • Yet another reason I dislike hosting birthday parties. I would have been all over the sack races and musical chairs… how fun!! It is sad that that was the first reaction of all the girls and of most children these days. I too am a firm believer of “You can’t win everything every time”.

    Beautiful post!!

  • kittenpie says:

    Totally with you on this. The fact is, sometimes you don’t get to be first, you don’t get what you want, and life goes on. Another day will be your turn. Another game or subject will be your strength. I just don’t want a kid who thinks the world owes her just for showing up. I run contests at the library sometimes and the winning team gets a special prize, with some fanfare – everyone gets something to take away, but the winning team might get books or special buttons that say #1 or something because THEY WON. Sheesh.

  • Right On, IzzyMom!

    On the other side of the coin to always winning is doing everything for external validation. At the Montessori school my kids go to, they don’t have grades and tests. The skeptic in me at first thought this was part of the “protect their self-esteem” thing, but now I see that the kids learn to do their work for the self-satisfaction of doing it.

    Having left an abusive relationship in large part to keep my kids from growing up to be so themselves, I see entitlement issues, coupled with a lack of real self-esteem to be core components of becoming abusive or abused.

  • Amen! I could not agree with you more. I’m trying to teach my 7-year-old son to lose gracefully at Monopoly to no avail. Maybe parents can’t cope with the whining, crying and screaming because they are too lazy to teach these life lessons.

  • I agree wholeheartedly, Izzy! You are absolutely right–this “Everyone’s a Winner” is crap. Real life doesn’t work that way.

    Some of my fondest memories involve elementary school Field Day. The competition. The drive to win that blue first place ribbon (or even the red second place ribbon, or the white third place ribbon). The pride of being recognized. The thrill of victory.

    Children these days don’t ever get to experience that b/c we’re all about being PC.

    It’s too bad.

  • mandy says:

    I taught for years at the high school level and I can honestly say that I was appalled at how “sore” losers were. Even as an adult, I can see how this attitude that everyone gets a prize no matter what is manifesting itself in a negative manner. I now work at my husband’s company where young employees (everyone 30 and under) expects to be given raises regularly just because. We do a POTY award every year (Performance of the Year) which has a nice gift attached to it, along with a plaque, and you can see that some people feel that they should win just by dint of being with the company longer than another employee.

    I hope my children learn to lose graciously when they are older, be it in sport, academia, or another aspect of life. At least David and I are trying to model that.

  • mod*mom says:

    that’s a conundrum :)

  • GeminiChick says:

    Darn skippy! I have a six-year old son who absolutely throws a tantrum when he doesn’t win a game, but I tell him the same thing: You want to win, you have to work harder. Sometimes it’s luck and sometimes it’s skill, but either way, he isn’t going to be one of those kids who whines about not getting a reward if he didn’t earn it. He’s going to be the one who keeps practicing and ends up winning of his own volition.

  • I’ve been meaning to write this exact post forever. Practically word for word. Now I’ll just tell people to read yours.

    We have found ourselves in an entitlement society. I wish I knew who to blame, so I think I’ll just blame Democrats. ;)

    The easiest way to make life hard on your kids is to make it soft for them.

    I swear I’m going to have that tattooed on my forehead.

  • Tracey says:

    I know I am a bit late with this comment (and I am not a regular commenter, but having just surfed across it, I just have to say I absolutely agree! I have been lamenting this myself of late but haven’t got round to blogging it. (When I do, I will link, because you have it SPOT ON.) Trophymania – everyone’s got to have one… Trophies for just turning up?! For your parents paying for your registration to play in a team for a season? One of my kids ended up with three trophies for one season of netball (extremely popular women’s sport in Aust.) One for playing in the team. One for being minor premiers (for coming in top of the ladder…) but then, after losing the grand final, a runners up trophy. (And never mind the environmental factor – the ever increasing demand to manufacture pieces of dust collecting junk that actually don’t mean anything!)

    The world is going mad.

  • Amy Trice from Graco says:

    Great post! You hit the nail on the head with this one. I was hoping the “everyone wins” trend was going to fade away. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s here to stay.

  • Got here via StumbleUpon, and I definitely agree!

    I have teenagers, and have seen this more in the elementary school-aged group than the higher years. I think at some point it starts to even out, where winners/achievers are recognized and rewarded (in my sons’ school sports programs, anyway) and those that want to win know they have to try harder next time.

  • Trevor says:

    Just found this after Be a Good Mom posted a link. And I’m glad to have read it; I utterly agree. I have a two-year old boy and we’re just beginning to have to deal with this at some of his peers’ parties.

    Hey, when I was young there wasn’t a little prize in every layer of pass the parcel. And the big prize in the middle wouldn’t necessarily go to the birthday boy/girl either, as seems to happen these days.

    (PS: as you can see I messed up my link first time. Feel free to delete my first comment!)

  • Deana says:

    Very Well written and I totally agree. Our kids will not benefit from this kind of “protection”. Life comes with dissappointments and the sooner they learn to deal with them the better. Great blogging!

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