“Everybody Wins” or the “Participation Award Syndrome”

I recently read about a school in the midwest that feels that naming a valedictorian makes other students feel “inadequate.” Really? What happened to the idea that, if you strive, work hard, make goals for yourself and put the time and effort into achieving them, you win? Not only that, but you are rightfully acknowledged for your hard work; how is that a bad thing?

Shouldn’t we have a bit of compassion for that student who put in the hard work and deserves to be the class valedictorian? Shouldn’t they allowed to shine alone and enjoy the honor for which they worked so hard? If the other kids feel inadequate, then maybe their parents and teachers should encourage them to be more ‘adequate.’

We seem to have become a nation where everyone must win something each and every time for each and every thing. Personally, I think it’s a great mistake to try to spare everyone’s feelings. In life, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, and no—life isn’t fair.

The sooner you learn this, the more prepared you are for living in this world. Hard work pays off, even if it is never recognized; you have the satisfaction of knowing that you did your absolute best.

For me, the “participation award syndrome” started when I was a student and later an instructor in Tae Kwon Do. Each year we would all go to the annual tournament with other schools to compete. There were first, second and third place trophies for all events for all ages. There were also participation awards given to every student who did not place in their events.

When our school began doing this, I noticed that a lot of people didn’t care for the idea. As a black belt, I refereed all day until my own events came up at the end. I watched student after student receive a participation award for simply being there. Most of them were lukewarm about it; they wanted “real trophies.”

When some of my students complained, I told them that this is why we practiced; why we strove during each class to improve. I explained that they needed to put the work in to succeed. Even if they did all they could to win, there could be someone else who trained harder (with or without natural talent) and/or wanted to win more than they did. This is what we call “life,” and sometimes you don’t win even if you do your best.

But how fair is it when a student works hard to achieve a goal; whether in sports, scholastics, music, drama—and then isn’t recognized for it for fear that other students’ feelings will be hurt? Shouldn’t the effort and time a student put into succeeding be celebrated? Don’t those students deserve to stand in the limelight for a few minutes?

If the other kids whine about ‘how come he/she gets this or that and I didn’t?’ the return question should be, ‘did you work as hard as you possibly could for it?’

When I was in high school I belonged to a singing group called the Back Bay Singers. It was sort of a Peter, Paul and Mary knockoff; two guitar-playing boys, and me as the “Mary.” We practiced and wanted to perform in the school talent show that year. I got over-confident and lazy; so sure of myself and my talents that I felt I didn’t need to practice that much, and often I didn’t show up for practice or made excuses for not being there.

Well, the guys got themselves another female singer, and, on the night of the talent show, they brought the house down with their version of “Summertime.” They won first place, and my dad, who photographed all school events, took the pictures for our local newspaper. I was about as jealous as I could be, and envied them their success. Too late, I wished that I had stuck with all those boring practice sessions.

My dad told me that this is what happens when you give up on something; that there is always someone who wants to put in the hard work if you don’t. He had no sympathy for me as I chose to drop out because I couldn’t be bothered to practice. He was absolutely right.

I never had children of my own, so I really shouldn’t criticize anyone for how they raise their children—but here is my take on it. Kids can have lots of friends; they don’t need their parents to be their best friends. What they need are parents (this goes for one-parent families, two-parent families, and I don’t give a hoot if they are gay or straight; parenting is parenting) who will encourage them to work for what they want and teach them that in life you don’t always get things handed to you.

Ever read any Robert Heinlein? His book, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” has a great premise in it called “tanstaafl.” This is an acronym for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” He was right, too—you don’t get something for nothing.

So to those who insist that we punish the one for ‘making all the other kids feel inadequate,’ I say this: reward and acknowledge them for their effort and achievement. Encourage the others who don’t succeed to make a goal and work for what they want. We are doing children no favors by letting them face the world thinking that everything is fair and that everyone gets a trophy for just showing up.