I saw this clip online this week:
"Louisville, KY (AP) - School districts in Kentucky are beginning to move away from naming valedictorians for graduating classes. Instead, districts plan to de-emphasize what could be seen as unhealthy competition and recognize all high achievers."
Excuse my sputtering, but when the hell did competition become "unhealthy"?
Right up front here: I was not valedictorian of my class. In fact, I was so far from valedictorian by my senior year in high school that if I'd studied 24 hours a day for nine months and paid a bribe to every school official it wouldn't have made a difference. I mention this to clarify that my sputtering isn't because I would have lost the valedictorian title had similar "idea" people come up with this scheme in 1974. While I wasn't a great student, I was a competitive one. Most of my good friends in those days were high-achievers, and because of those motivated kids in my life who were competing against each other, and because all of these friends were pursuing higher education, I ultimately woke up and excelled. In spite of so-so grades I managed to get myself accepted to college and was straight A by the end of my freshman year. After four years of competing with thousands of university students, I was a high B/low A. I was proud of my academic achievement and so were my parents. In my little world I had become a champion and it felt great to win. It still does.
Competition in my life has substantially contributed to who I am, starting with my father's high-spirited style of teaching games at which he never let me win. Dad's coaching me to compete was only the beginning. I went on from there to hard-won high school band and color guard performances thanks to character-building (and yes, often grueling) practice schedules set up by instructors who understood that sooner or later we would enter the real world, a world where life-changing competition reared its healthy head every single day in the form of customers, bosses, co-workers, husbands, wives, children, mortgages, and massive responsibility for all of the above. Even today competition is a constant in my life, whether in a golf tournament, a weekend card game with my family, or in meeting a client deadline...even if the "client" is me and the deadline is self-imposed.
Somewhere on this road we've lost our way. We give trophies to every kid so they "can feel good about themselves." Coaches advise athletes to "go easy" on the other team, and in one instance that I witnessed personally a junior high coach told a great soccer player to stop making goals because heaven forbid they should beat the other team too badly. Simon Cowell used to get grief on American Idol because he told tone deaf young people to give up on music, causing the astounded non-singer to stomp off and wail in his mother's arms, a mother who then turned to cameras and cussed Simon out for "abusing" a child who'd been told all his life he was a star.
Of course we need to give our kids positive feedback, but not to the point where we convince them that they're entitled to win no matter how poorly they perform. Through the span of my life I've watched other kids win trophies, other students receive accolades, other bands take home the big prize, other golfers win tournaments, and other adults make more money and get better jobs. So far I've managed to resist jumping off the nearest cliff in despondency because I understand how life works: they performed better than I did, giving me the option to either try harder or be a good loser and say congratulations. What should not be an option is making the competition easier. If a kid is asked to run a mile instead of ten, guess what? She's going to run the mile and only the mile, and maybe not even that if she can get a trophy just for showing up.
Educators in Kentucky are not "de-emphasizing what could be seen as unhealthy competition," they're emphasizing...and proliferating...mediocrity. Kentuckians, pick up a thesaurus. Under competition you'll find such words as striving, and struggle, and trial, and contest, and fight, and opposition, all adjectives for situations we adults encounter every day. Educators should be teaching children how to cope with life, not giving a quick fix for kiddy confidence. Competition is not "unhealthy," and winning a trophy for doing nothing, or eliminating recognition for a top student in a class, does not build self worth. True self esteem comes from winning in a field of fierce and talented competitors who want to win as much as you do. That's how champions are born.
Hey Kentucky, have you ever seen The Incredibles? Great kid flick with a clear message: When everybody's a winner, nobody is.