By Brian Sack
Recently I had to pry a trophy out of my 5-year-old son’s hands. It had been given to him by a classmate—a lovely girl who gives my son things because she intends to marry him one day. I don’t have a problem with that as her mother is a stunning, 6-foot-tall Belarusian model who always gives me candy, so she’d be a great in-law.
In the past he’d been given dolls, pencils, key chains, a round thing that beeps, love notes—all good. But I couldn’t let him walk away from a playdate with a trophy in his hands. First of all, it was a very nice trophy. Second of all, it was for something he’d had no part in doing but was seemingly proud to have. I thought this would be a bad lesson for him.
Unfortunately, he thought otherwise and was adamant that the trophy would be coming home with him. My argument that trophies existed solely to reward accomplishments repeatedly fell on deaf ears. “But she said I could have it!” was the standard response. He really wanted a trophy to be proud of. It was a long struggle.
Ultimately I won because I’m bigger; however, there was no shortage of tears shed. My son cried too. I handed the trophy back to the lovely girl, thanked her for her generosity and said goodbye to her heavily accented, supermodel mom who handed me a bag full of delightful Japanese candy.
On the subway ride home I tried to explain to my darling progeny that a trophy is something to be proud of because you did something to earn it. As an example I offered up the fact that in my youth I was a swimmer. It was the only sport I was good at—having earned the painful moniker “Easy Out” in Little League. But swimming fast and straight was something I could do well, and I had the ribbons and trophies to prove it. They were things I could be proud of because I’d earned them, as opposed to a baseball trophy that I did not have or deserve because I could neither catch nor swing—making me supremely horrible at baseball.
I believed I’d done a good job as a parent in getting across the idea that you would be rewarded for accomplishing things and not rewarded for not accomplishing things. Sure, it tends to be the exact opposite in politics, but I’m not going to ruin his life by getting him thinking about politics yet. Some day maybe. Not now.
Alas, this valuable lesson in merit was short-lived as less than three weeks later he was handed a trophy from his chess teacher. The trophy is large. It is heavy. It says, “FOR EXCELLENT PARTICIPATION.” And everyone in the class got one.
He came home, and shoved the thing in my face, beaming.
“Look!” he said, “I got a trophy!”
Now, of course, this instantly makes me the curmudgeon. I’m the bad guy for not wanting my son to be rewarded simply for learning how to play chess. I know I’m not alone though. Most folks I talk to seem to agree that kids today—and for quite some time now—have been coddled, over-indulged and brought up in an extremely pleasant, pain-free world where every single one of them is a really bright, very talented, amazingly attractive, truly exceptional individual with so much to offer. Is it any wonder that when they graduate college they expect the keys to the corner office and a salary that would make Warren Buffet blush?
There’s no shortage of parents who agree that the fantasyland kids grow up in sets the stage for future disappointment when reality rears its ugly head. It’s why we find ourselves wholly amused by watching young adults who can’t sing really think they have a shot on American Idol. But it’s kind of sad. And it’s kind of scary. College professors I’ve spoken with all say the same thing: American kids’ expectations far outweigh their abilities while foreign students are more humble, more disciplined and smarter. Ouch?
It feels like this country has been suffering for quite some time from lots of bad ideas. “Everyone’s a winner!” is one of them. I’m going to have to sit down and explain to my son that his trophy is a nice but empty gesture. It might hurt his feelings a little, but I’d rather risk that than wind up with a young man who expects a black belt just for taking karate or for showing up on time. Ultimately he’ll be better off for it. And I’ll finally have earned my Nobel Prize in parenting.