This past week the New York Times carried a fascinating editorial piece about the number of awards that children receive, both in and out of school. The writer, Ashley Merryman, wrote of how trophies, once relatively rare objects to be bestowed, are now mass produced—trophy and award sales are a $3 billion-a-year business in the United States and Canada. Increasingly, trophies are likely to be handed out to more and more young people, in programs that give out awards to every child involved, even on frequent occasions.
Merryman’s research, along with those of others, reveals that the proliferation of awards (what she calls “nonstop recognition”), originally thought to be vehicles of enhancing children’s self-esteem and motivating them to do well, actually can cause them to underachieve. What’s more, it can cause them to collapse at the first sign of difficulty. Thereafter, rather than experiencing that intense feeling of failure all over again, students are more prone than ever to cheat the next time around.
Are we doing our job of preparing young people, she asks, to face a world where they are likely to lose more often than win, where we need to learn from the many mistakes we make, as opposed to falling apart as a result of them?
In Episcopal schools, we have deep and compelling theological reasons for seeking to affirm all of our students—each one is a child of God. We also have a deep and compelling theological framework for those times when students stumble, make mistakes, and fail—we are finite beings, who consistently fall short of our expectations and hopes. God provides us a context for our failures, as well as an opportunity to learn from them and move on, blessed with God’s forgiveness and mercy. We hold to both of these theological truths—sometimes in great tension, sometimes in wonderful balance as our students encounter and learn from the rough edges of life.
We should not confuse the belief that all of us are children of God with the need to be awarding all of the time. So, too, we should not, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, confuse one defeat with final defeat. We have something more lasting in affirming children than what Merryman refers to as the “Trophy Industrial complex.” But we also have something far more lasting than simply “learning from our mistakes,” or, “learning how to lose.” We have grace to proclaim, forgiveness to offer, and hope for a new beginning.< /p>
These theological profundities turn out to offer, for our trophy-saturated culture, some very practical and realistic value.
This piece first appeared as the Weekly Meditation for Monday, September 30, 2013. The Weekly Meditation is sent to member heads, rectors, chaplains each Monday of the school year.