In an op-ed that reaches into a universe too distant for even the New York Times, Alfie Cohen attempts to revitalize the “everybody gets a trophy” sense of entitlement that gives rise to exaggerated self-esteem of youth. Yes, the Slackoisie have a new champion.
But seriously, has any child who received a trinket after losing a contest walked away believing that he (or his team) won — or that achievement doesn’t matter? Giving trophies to all the kids is a well-meaning and mostly innocuous attempt to appreciate everyone’s effort.
Even so, I’m not really making a case for doing so, since it distracts us from rethinking competition itself and the belief that people can succeed only if others fail.
Rather, my intent is to probe the underlying cluster of mostly undefended beliefs about what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards) and what produces excellence (competition).
Between the use of bizarrely loaded language, obvious strawman arguments and low-rent logical fallacies, Cohen posits that society has returned to the bad old days of meritocracy.
The conventional wisdom these days is that kids come by everything too easily — stickers, praise, A’s, trophies. It’s outrageous, we’re told, that all kids on the field may get a thanks-for-playing token, in contrast to the good old days, when recognition was reserved for the conquering heroes.
It’s “conventional wisdom”? And those who succeed through hard work and dedicated effort are “conquering heroes”? As the past few years’ worth of graduating law students learned the hard way, life isn’t always easy. While Cohen tries to spin the message as “life is awful,” which may be the way it was portrayed in his house, the reality is that life doesn’t give every kid a trophy, an A or a job. Even when they play by all the rules, just like mommy and daddy told them, reality doesn’t always play fair.
In any case, no one ever explains the mechanism by which the silence of a long drive home without a trophy is supposed to teach resilience. Nor are we told whether there’s any support for this theory of inoculation by immersion. Have social scientists shown that those who are spared, say, the rigors of dodge ball (which turns children into human targets) or class rank (which pits students against one another) will wind up unprepared for adulthood?
One might suspect that if someone is “smart” enough to get their essay in the New York Times, they would similarly be smart enough to comprehend the mechanism of incentives. It’s just not that difficult a concept. If your team loses a game, you have two choices: work harder to win next time or find a different game to play. Don’t care for dodge ball (“which turns children into human targets,” which makes it an evil game)? Play baseball, which doesn’t.
I would suggest fencing, but that turns children into human targets too. Of course, there may be a reason why many sports “turn children into human targets.” We spend our lives as human targets, and it helps to know how to avoid being hit when one tries to survive, if not succeed. We may not like it that way, and may well prefer not to have anyone try to hit us with a ball or the end of a sword, but that choice is in the other person’s hands, not ours.
Extrapolate this survival technique to vying for a promotion, where there is one job opening and multiple people interested in the position. It’s fine to urge that those interested only promote their own qualities, but it’s possible that someone is going to suggest their strengths are better than the competition’s. And ultimately, someone will get the job and others will not. Life isn’t awful, but it is most assuredly competitive.
But where Cohen reveals how tenuous his grasp on reality is his argument about “conditionality.”
Children ought never to receive something desirable — a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation — unless they’ve done enough to merit it. They shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments. In this view, we have a moral obligation to reward the deserving and, equally important, make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded. Hence the anger over participation trophies. The losers mustn’t receive something that even looks like a reward.
He elevates the emotionally overwrought perspective, where he focuses on the view from the “loser’s” side, and where the denial of a reward is a punishment reflecting the conditionality of affection.
Over the last decade or so, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, and their colleagues in the United States and Belgium, have conducted a series of experiments whose consistent finding is that when children feel their parents’ affection varies depending on the extent to which they are well behaved, self-controlled or impressive at school or sports, this promotes “the development of a fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self.”
Conflating parental love with success is an interesting, but wholly unrelated twits. If so, and Cohen’s saying so isn’t sufficient as he’s demonstrated a willingness to spin too hard by half, then the solution isn’t to hand out participation trophies, but to distinguish parental love, which is unconditional, with success in school, sports, whatever, which is, by definition, conditional.
A parent doesn’t stop loving his child because he lost at dodge ball. Rather, a loving parent helps his child to be a better dodge ball player. Or tiddly winks. Or whatever sport, game, musical instrument, academic subject, non-academic interest, best suits his child. But he doesn’t withdraw love because of dodge ball. Unless the parent is a really bad parent.
Other researchers, meanwhile, have shown that high self-esteem is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you’re competent and worthwhile — even when you screw up or fall short. In other words, the very unconditionality that seems to fuel attacks on participation trophies and the whole “self-esteem movement” turns out to be a defining feature of psychological health. It’s precisely what we should be helping our children to acquire.
And therein lies the fallacy. High self-esteem is beneficial, but only if it’s warranted. Unwarranted high self-esteem is the stuff of a miserable life, when a child finally grows beyond stunted adolescence, edges toward maturity, and learned that the world doesn’t see him as his mother does.
My father (who turns 89 today) used to tell me, “rich or poor, it’s good to have money.” People who lived through the great depression and winter in the Ardennes were a practical bunch. The message wasn’t about how not to lose, but how to win. Hard work, tenacity and resilience were good things. They still are.
While money isn’t the only measure of success, though I can’t fault a guy who didn’t have two dimes to rub together in his youth from desiring the wherewithal to provide a comfortable life for his family, neither is the belief that getting hit by a dodge ball makes you a winner. That’s not how the game is played, and life isn’t anymore unforgiving.
Life is not awful, but success in life isn’t a product of self-delusion. It takes effort. Sadly, the New York Times rewards Alfie Cohen’s effort by putting this tripe in its paper, and thereby emboldens the Slackoisie to believe that they are just as entitled to a fabulous life as those who have earned it.