Thursday, September 26th, 2013
Maybe the trophy thing has really gotten out of hand. I continue to read articles – like Ashley Merryman‘s recent piece in the New York Times – about how kids get handed a trophy for doing nothing but showing up. This of course can apply to sports, dancing – or nearly any activity that kids participate in. The suggestion is made that only a few kids should get a trophy to recognize special achievements – and that most kids should get used to the idea that, in the real world, not every kid is, in essence, equally the best.
All of this makes perfect sense and is backed up by research that goes back decades. But there’s a bigger problem. Our culture is predicated on the idea that kids have to be rewarded externally. Even our good discussions about how praise backfires spin off into the proper way to either nurture or reinforce a child for doing something – almost to the point that kids are going to be expecting constant reinforcement for effort.
We are obsessed with giving kids feedback. We’re spinning around from meaningless awards and misdirected praise to guides on how to externally validate effort at every turn. Yes, it is important to support kids’ efforts and not their outcomes. If you want to learn about this from the expert, check out Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. She’s been doing this work for a very long time, and has found a nice way to distill her findings and perspective. But the thing is this should be reserved for moments – little and big – in a kid’s life when you want to give them a boost or just a little pat on the back. Not every other minute.
We come at kids as if they don’t have an internal sense of reward. That’s not how the brain works. Kid’s are wired to experience pleasure from their effort and use it as fuel to try harder. If they are playing kickball, it doesn’t feel good if you don’t kick the ball well – and it feels great when you kick it better. You certainly don’t need an adult there with trophies to be handed out to everyone who has come to play – or to praise everyone for their effort. It’s nice to have an adult there to tell a kid who is struggling to not give up if kickball is something they want to play. But if that adult isn’t there, I think most kids would do alright. Most of them would keep trying to kick the ball. And therein lies the problem.
Kids don’t own their own play anymore. Adults regulate it. Young kids don’t just get together to play baseball – they are out in uniform on a Saturday morning at 8am with adults coaching them and watching them and reacting to every thing they do. Kids don’t just take dance lessons because it’s fun to learn to dance – there has to be public performances and competitions with adults providing flowers and applause. Kids don’t just sing anymore – they audition for reality shows or try to get discovered on YouTube. I’ll be honest – I never, ever want to see another 5-year-old on national television being judged by adults.
We can talk all we want about praise and trophies and effort and all that. But the fundamental issue is that adults seem to be around all the time to judge kids. Whether we’re judging their performance, or their effort, they are cut off from the opportunity to generate their own reinforcement. Guess what – kids are really good judges at who, at any given point in time, is “better” or “worse” at something. Many times they don’t care nearly as much about that as adults do. Why? Because they typically know, instinctively, that they want to do. It’s when their arena becomes infiltrated with mixed messages about winning and losing and praise and encouragement – when they become aware that they have an audience of adults who are constantly assessing them – that they lose their instincts and either stop doing or stop enjoying what they do.
Every kid needs encouragement. Some can use it more than others. They may need it when they are struggling. It’s nice for them to get it even when they aren’t. It’s nice to get recognition for an accomplishment. But the most powerful reinforcement schedule is variable – meaning now and then. Can’t we pick our spots? A little now and then? And, most importantly, can we, for the most part, let kids just do without having adults there to give them constant feedback?Add a Comment