The dangers of telling kids ‘it’s the taking part that counts’

Children should not be misled: real life should be a meritocracy

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

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‘I won! I won!” I looked up from my book in a bustling cafe to find the source of the little trilling voice. It was my good friend’s niece, Emily. Delighted to see her, I set down my book and buried my nose in the floral scent of her little four-year-old head while giving her a tickle. My friend followed at a slightly less enthusiastic and bustling pace than her overactive charge.

Scones were ordered, and before sitting down to do her colouring, Emily showed me what she had won. It was a small but handsome medal adorned with a little football, and it dangled on a scarlet ribbon. When I had finished telling Emily that she must have worked very hard, and deserved lots of praise for her medal, she returned with satisfaction to her colouring, tongue jutting out at an angle as she concentrated on staying within the lines of the octopus.

My friend leaned forward and whispered, “They all got a medal, but Emily’s been carrying it about with her and telling everyone she won”. She laughed.

“Everyone on the team got a medal? ” I replied.

“No,” she said. “Everyone on both teams got a medal. It’s a participation medal.”

Engineered equality
I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Before they arrived, I’d been re-reading Harrison Bergeron, a dystopian science-fiction short story by Kurt Vonnegut, which was originally published in 1961. The story depicts a world where total equality has been engineered by the government. It is a world in which, to spare anyone from feeling inadequate, people are inhibited into a state that makes them as close to identical as possible. Intelligent people have a device fitted in their ear that prevents them thinking too much by sporadically emitting loud, grating noises. Beautiful people have to wear masks, and athletic people must wear debilitating weights to inhibit their physical abilities.

Obviously, Emily’s participation medal is not the precursor to a dystopian world in which every advantage is squashed by a despotic state – we don’t need to retreat to the bunkers just yet – but it isn’t really a good sign either. Giving Emily a medal simply for turning up led her to the misunderstanding that turning up in and of itself is an achievement.

The ethos that sport, in particular, should not be all about winning is a good one. However, if playing for its own sake is the ethos we wish to instil in children, then playing should be its own reward.

I have never met an adult who received adulation or reward in the absence of achievement. Yes, achievement is relative, but in the adult world it’s relative to your peers. Real life should be a meritocracy.

Reward for nothing
I’m terrible at football. As a teenager I once managed to kick my own foot out from under myself. Does that mean that the other people in my class who possessed a flair and talent for the sport shouldn’t be acknowledged, in case it hurt my feelings? Being rewarded for my sloppy performance would have instilled the mistaken belief that I didn’t need to work to try to improve.

It is exceptionally patronising to reward someone for not excelling. Worse, it stunts the motivation of those who can excel. If I could run a five- minute mile (I can’t) and the fellow next to me does it in three hours, and we both win the prize at the end of the race, I might as well give up and go to McDonald’s.

We can’t discourage success to spare the feelings of the less successful. We all excel at something. Creating the illusion that we are great at anything in the absence of effort is unhelpful.

If I’m lying on a surgical table with half my leg hanging off, I want the best surgeon I can get, and I’m likely to get her or him. Why? Because surgeons must pass exams – must prove their merit and ability in order to be trusted with the task of performing surgery.

Thankfully, feelings don’t really come into it.

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