I love sports. I grew up playing them. I suffer physically for my passion even today as I prepare for what will be my tenth knee operation. And, I don't regret one minute, one quarter, one out spent on the playing fields of my youth.
My kids have grown up with sports as well. My son was skiing when he was three. My daughter played her first soccer game when she was three. They're both playing today by their own choice with dad's vocal, sideline support.
Sports teach self-discipline. Sports develop teamwork. Sports promote physical health and coordination. Plus, sports teach valuable life lessons, lessons about trial and triumph, patience and perseverance. On playing fields all across the world, sports prepare our children for many of the obstacles they will one day face as adults.
Well, that's what they should do. Today many of our children are not being prepared to face the harsh realities of an adult world where life isn't always fair, where hard work isn't always rewarded, where not everyone wins. Instead, they're being taught that everyone is a winner. They're given trophies for subpar performances. They're being congratulated for being the worst in the league. They're told that second best really is good enough. Our kids' expectations are being lowered even as we lift them up on our shoulders.
Don't misunderstand me. Kids should be encouraged to play. Coaches and parents who bash and debase children for their losing efforts need to be fired and chided, respectively. When they don't win, their efforts need to be acknowledged, their continued participation encouraged. In that sense, anyone who plays is a winner no matter who won.
However, by treating the winners and losers equally, giving trophies of the same size and value to all who participate, we're doing more than patting our children on the back. We're holding them back. We run the risk of them going through life expecting the rewards for good work to be given for work that wasn't. We're training up a generation with an attitude of self-entitlement. We're creating a cohort of would-be adults who expect the world to celebrate their inferior efforts, their lacksadaisical attitudes, and their willingness just to show up no matter what they do once they're there.
"You can't fire me. I've been here every day."
"What do you mean I'm not getting a pay raise? Bob got a pay raise. I've worked here longer than him."
"How dare you tell me mine isn't good enough? I did it, didn't I?"
"Can't you just throw out the lowest test grades and keep the highest? That would be fair."
Those complaints and team of others just like them don't work in the real world. People who don't do the work get fired. Students who don't pass muster fail. Not everyone is a leader and not everyone is a winner. Unfortunately, because they've been taught to think otherwise, many of them have become self-congratulatory whiners.
"Oh, but what about the kids? Their poor broken hearts? They'll be forever tainted by failure, if we keep score and treat the winners differently."
Will they really? Are we consigning the less athletically-inclined to a life of self-abasement? Are we truly conditioning them for failure? I think not.
Our best efforts to protect our children from the anguish of loss don't. The next time you join the soccer moms at the field, watch the kids. Even when the adults aren't keeping score, when they're not tracking wins and losses, the kids are. They know the score. They know who won and lost. That ten dollar trophy can't replace the thrill of victory and it can't assuage the pain of defeat.
If my kids are any indication, they don't care about the trophies in the long run because even they know they don't mean anything. In their minds, the satisfaction of winning beats a piece of gold colored plastic any day of the week.
When our kids win we need to celebrate joyously while keeping the magnitude of the moment in perspective. They didn't cure cancer. They haven't made a profession of faith. They beat another bunch of six year olds at a game that requires no greater skill than the ability to kick a ball while running. Yet, in the process, they've learned an invaluable lessons, lessons about hard work, lessons learned with sweat not by sitting on the sideline.
When the kids lose, we need to be there to pick them up, to dust them off. We need to encourage them to try again. Yet, we need to remember that we must take the teachable moment and teach them. We must teach them the value of their effort while also teaching them the route to future success, building off defeat the skills and the attitude necessary for future victory. These lessons are learned when we quit congratulating them for losing and start encouraging them toward victory. When we do, we're preparing them for life.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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