We found ourselves at the likeliest place one warm Saturday morning: the playground adjacent to the community swimming pool not far from our house. We had arrived early in an attempt to beat the late summer heat and crowds and were just settling in. We were divvying up still-warm baked goods to our three boys before they ran off to burn the early morning energy when we heard, over the unmistakable echo of a megaphone, an announcer readying participants for a race.

Upon further investigation, we discovered a kid’s triathlon was about to begin. But there was some time to kill before the race started, so the announcer took the opportunity to encourage the participants, aged 7 through 12, with a few catch phrases.

My husband and I exchanged sideways looks and smiled as we watched our boys catch the contagion of excitement and energy floating through the air. And then we heard it, the ridiculous line and lie that has become commonplace in the arena of childhood competition: “Everyone is a winner just for showing up!”

We laughed out loud, shaking our heads in solidarity, having fairly recently come off a conversation about medals and awards and the every child is a special snowflake mentality that has crept into the parenthood domain sometime between the time we were children and the time we had children of our own.

Our 7-year-old, standing nearby, noticed our reactions and asked what was so funny, so we explained, in the best way we could, not trying to hide our disdain for the notion. “No. Not everyone is a winner just for showing up. The winner, in this case, is the person who swims, rides, and runs the fastest. The winner is the kid who crosses the finish line first.”

We continued the banter and brought up issues of effort and pride: that how hard each child trained for this event had a direct impact on how well he would do; that effort and commitment are crucial, that you have to do more that just “show up” to win a race and moreover, to feel proud of yourself when you have completed that race, even if you don’t win.

Pride does not come from just showing up.

According to Jean M. Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, the “everyone is a winner” mentality does not build true self-esteem; instead, it “builds this empty sense of ‘I’m just fantastic, not because I did anything, but just because I’m here.”

Setting aside the problems of narcissism and entitlement in our society, the act of telling a group of children that they are winners just for showing up waters down and devalues the very concept of winning; who can feel the true joy of a victory if trophies are handed out just for participating?

We are, as a society, kidding ourselves and selling our children short, if we truly believe that children cannot tell (at the beginning, at least) when they deserve something. Before we fill their heads with catch phrases like, “There are no losers when you play hard,” or “Everyone gets a medal for trying their hardest!” children understand the concept of fairness, of loss, and of healthy competition. However, with enough of this talk, our children can start to feel entitled to that prize, however cheap it may feel in the end.

I’m all for good sportsmanship, but having a positive attitude will not always equate winning or success in life. Sometimes, you just lose.

Recently, Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive player James Harrison came under scrutiny for making his two sons return the participation trophies they had received. Harrison stated that he believes that everything in life should be earned, and that “… sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better.”

I say, kudos to Harrison for his decision. Harrison is instilling in his children the true value of success, in addition to allowing them the opportunity to fail. And the bright side of experiencing failure should not be overlooked; when we allow our children to fail, we teach them about resilience, about learning from their mistakes, about the wide range of emotions and experiences they will have to face as adults, about effort and perseverance, and about their own strength of character. When we allow our children to fail, we allow them to experience their own ability to bounce back. In allowing them to fail, we show our children that they will be alright.

And when we allow our children to fail, those times they do win in the future, actually really, truly win at something, we also allow them to feel the true, unadulterated joy of success.

So next time your child puts his all into something and still comes in second, or third, or dead last, give him a hug, tell him you know it’s hard to feel that feeling of failure, and tell him to get back out there and give it all he has. Let’s make winning mean something again.

Lauren Knight blogs at Crumb Bums.

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