Do you sign up your kid for a team sport because you want him to win the championship trophy? Is it your goal for him to be on the winning team or the MVP? Does it matter if he wins or loses? Or are you relieved and happy for him to receive a trophy for participating? In an article entitled “Not Everyone Deserves a Trophy,” Sara Debbie Gutfreund advises parents that when signing their children up for recreational sports, they should stay far away from programs that promise that all children who participate will receive trophies. The author comments that she was raised in a certain “trophy culture” where children (including herself) would constantly receive trophies for participation in Little League and other activities. She suggests that continuous recognition does not allow children to appropriately deal with setbacks, disappointment and struggle.
In a New York Times Op-Ed article entitled, “Losing is Good For You” (September 24, 2013), Ashley Merryman quotes her own research (along with a colleague, Po Bronson) that suggests that children receiving nonstop recognition does not inspire our children to succeed. Instead, it may cause them to underachieve. She further quotes the research of Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who has studied the effect of praise on children, that children respond positively to praise and like to hear about their strengths and positive attributes. However, after hearing such praise, children will “collapse at the first sign of difficulty.” In this article, there was a research study of 4-year-old children who were told that they had an innate ability to draw, versus other children who were simply asked to draw a picture. Those who were praised for having an innate ability to draw were twice as likely to be fixated on making mistakes as the other group of children.
Our children all have innate abilities. The above cited research is not meant as a deterrent to parents to sign their children up for Little League, nor is it meant to deter parents from trying to push their children to succeed in different academic, social and recreational contexts. The above research, however, does suggest that there is real value in helping our children deal with setbacks.
Beyond losing the championship game in the local yeshiva baseball league, there are numerous opportunities for parents to communicate with their children about setbacks. Let’s cite a few examples:
David, a 4th grade student, is visibly upset on the 1st day of school. When his mother asks him why he is so upset, David tells his mother that he only has one friend in his class from last year. He requests that his mother call the school to have his class switched.
Gila, a 6th grade student, is visibly upset after getting a C on her science project. She tells her father that she spent 6 hours on this project and she has never worked so hard on any academic assignment. She tells her father that she has “given up” and she will no longer work this hard for any future assignments in the class.
Shmuel, a 12-year-old boy speaks to his parents on camp visiting day. He tells them that he has the “worst bunk ever” and that he wants to go home immediately.
In the three cited examples there may be valid reasons for parents to address their concerns to the school administration, classroom teacher or camp staff/head counselor. However, there is also a significant benefit in parents helping their children manage academic and social setbacks. In the next article, we will review these three examples and discuss how parents and children can collaborate together to deal with various setbacks.
Mark Staum, LCSW is the school therapist for the PTACH program _ MTA. He maintains a local private practice in Teaneck, NJ, where he sees children, adolescents, young adults and families. For questions or comments about this article, please contact mstaumlcsw_gmail.com . To learn more about Mark, please email me or feel free to look at my web site, www.markstaum.com
By Mark Staum, LCSW