It's Not Just How We Play That Matters: The New Trend? Games and Contests Where No Child Loses. but Kids Need to Learn the Lessons of Defeat

Newsweek, March 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

It's Not Just How We Play That Matters: The New Trend? Games and Contests Where No Child Loses. but Kids Need to Learn the Lessons of Defeat


Last Halloween my 5-year-old son entered a pumpkin-decorating contest at his school. He was so proud of his entry--a wild combination of carvings, paint and feathers he had constructed all by himself with his own kindergartner's sense of art. He lugged it proudly to the school cafeteria and we placed it among the other entries, a very creative bunch of witch pumpkins, snowman pumpkins, scary pumpkins, even a bubble-gum blowing, freckle-faced pumpkin wearing a baseball cap. "Wow," I thought to myself, "the judges are going to have a tough time choosing a winner."

I guess the judges must have thought the same thing because they didn't choose one. When we returned to the school cafeteria for the annual fall dinner that evening, we saw that all the pumpkins had been awarded the same black and gold ribbon. My son, eagerly searching to see if he'd won, kept asking me, "Which pumpkin won? Where's the winner?"

What could I say? "Well, it looks like everyone won. Look: you got a ribbon, honey!"

Kids are smart. That didn't satisfy him. "Yeah, but who won?" he asked. I could sense his disappointment and my own disappointment as well. What's the point of having a contest if you're not going to pick a winner?

I understand what the school was trying to do. The judges meant to send the message that all the children had done a great job and deserved to be recognized. I worry that a different message was sent, one that said losing is a hardship that no one should have to go through.

I've noticed this trend a lot lately: adults' refusing to let children fail at something. It's as if we grown-ups believe that kids are too fragile to handle defeat. Last year I purchased a game for my son and his 4-year-old brother that I'd found in a catalog. It was touted as teaching kids to work together to reach an end goal, with lots of fun problem-solving along the way. "Great!" I thought, and ordered it right away. The game arrived and I played it with my boys. The trouble was that everyone won this game. We all arrived at the end together. This sounds great in theory, but where's the incentive to keep playing? We played that game twice, and it has sat gathering dust ever since.

Without a potential winner, a game or contest loses its excitement. If there's nothing to compete for, the drive to do our best is replaced by a "What's the point? …

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