The email landed in my inbox on an otherwise calm day, but as I scanned the list trying to find my daughter’s name, I realized the tranquility was about to end.  

“Wren, we need to talk.”

I explained to her that the speaking part she auditioned for in the musical had gone to someone else, but she was given a non-speaking part and would still be part of the choir.

“Wait, did they not know I wanted a speaking part? I mean, do I need to tell them at the next practice that’s what I was trying out for so they will understand?” Wren asked, and I wondered if there had ever been a time in my life when I possessed enough confidence to see rejection as someone else’s obvious mistake.

“That’s not actually what happened,” I said and proceeded to explain the finer points of being a gracious loser and looking at the audition as one for her experience bank.  

“You tried and didn’t get it, but that doesn’t mean the experience was a waste,” I encouraged.  As tears rolled down her cheeks, I started wondering about the benefits of the experience bank since my heart ached for my oldest child.  

However, research has my back. Yes, Wren lost, but that is now being seen as the first step in teaching our kids to succeed.

How Participation Trophies and Praise Teach Our Kids to Stop Trying

In the age of participation trophies and praise just for showing up, our children are unfamiliar with the sting of loss and the lessons that can come from it, such as perseverance and self-confidence. As nice as it is to get a trophy no matter what, researchers believe this trend is depriving our kids of life-skills.

Po Bronson and Ashely Merryman, co-authors of the book Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, found that kids who are always praised and given trophies tend to achieve less because they enjoy the praise so much they fear failure. Fearing failure means they don’t persevere when they come across a difficult task. They would rather receive praise for doing less than failing and losing the praise.

How we respond to our children losing also has a huge effect on how they view it. Psychologists have found that parents who are able to address their child’s failure as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes have kids who are more willing to keep trying, even when a task is difficult. Parents who instead tell their kids to stick with what they know when they fail in a new area are more likely to have kids who think all skills are innate and can’t be changed by hard work.  

Basically, these children come to believe intelligence is set and when they lose, they are not intelligent. These kids are likely to shy away from anything they don’t know they are already good at, because who wants to feel stupid?

The Pressure to Win

It’s not that we shouldn’t encourage our kids’ desire to win. Healthy competition is not bad, but winning should not be the final indicator of whether an experience was worthwhile or not.  

Psychology Today found that while the majority of people polled believe trophies should only be given to children who actually win, there is still room to praise effort and improvement. It doesn’t have to come in trophy form, and there’s no reason to avoid the obvious subject of loss as if it’s too shameful to discuss.  

However, sincerely praising a child’s effort and rewarding them for how much they’ve improved and tried is much different than giving a child praise for just showing up. When parents know and express the difference, they can help their kids value the effort that went into trying as much as the accolades that come with winning.

How Parents Are Programmed Affects Their Response

As parents, our innate desire is to see our children happy, and it’s never a parent’s desire to watch their kid fail, even if the child can learn something from the experience. Plus, parents who have memories of feeling like a failure will fight hard to make sure their child doesn’t carry the same scars.  

Brené Brown, author of “Rising Strong“, also points out that many of us see our child’s successes and failures as a reflection of us. As parents, it’s great to have the child who is winning because we feel we own part of that success just by being their parent.  

Our goal then, according to Brown and other researchers, needs to be to deal with our own feelings so we can better guide our kids to a more accurate understanding of how to fail and keep trying. Brown emphasizes teaching kids to be the author of their story instead of only casting themselves as the losers or winners. This helps reframe experiences, good and bad, as a part of the narrative of life, and that gives kids both a sense of control and a more comprehensive understanding of how our response to a win or a loss is often more important than the competition itself.

Beyond the Participation Trophy

Failure is an everyday practice not reserved only for auditions and sports competitions. Our kids are given opportunities on school assignments or other endeavors to use their skills, and they are also given the chance to find out their project might not be the best, no matter how hard they tried.

Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed”, believes it’s just as important for parents not to meddle in a child’s assignments to ensure they score the highest grade or receive the most praise. Encouraging a child to work hard and put in their best effort is enough. Parents stepping in to make the project or assignment just a bit better so their child won’t face the uncomfortable feeling of not being the best is not teaching them a helpful lesson.

The child who works hard and still doesn’t win will likely do better with the outcome than the child who works hard then has their parent step in to make modifications to their work. Our actions, not just our words, teach our kids what we think about effort versus winning, and always being the safety net to shield our child from failure says we don’t value the experience as much as we do the outcome, nor do we consider their hard work good enough.

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With the research on my side, I continued to talk to Wren about trying hard at new endeavors she wanted to master as opposed to sticking only with the safe skills she already knew she could perform. She received praise for her effort, for giving the audition her best shot and trying something new.  

Focusing on the hard work instead of the outcome had a desirable effect. She marched back in when solo singing tryouts occurred two weeks later, unafraid of failing. She was offered her first choice solo song and has since signed up to compete in a bookmark contest and a Grand Prix race where she builds her own car, despite not knowing the first thing about building a tiny, mobile car. She will likely lose the last two endeavors, and that’s just fine.

It’s nice to see kids win some, but it’s even better to see them become accomplished losers.