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Forget Participation Trophies - Let Yourself Experience Pain

Mark Jewell

Forget participation trophies - let yourself experience pain

If you've been anywhere near social media recently, it's likely you've seen this video of Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz pop up in your News Stream. If you haven't, check it out:

Does Jeff make some valid points? Absolutely. There are many in the Millennial generation (my generation) who have never lost before. Who believe they deserve a good job, a good salary, to move up the ladder, to get everything they ever wished for without working for it. Those people exist.

But there's more to the story.

I wrote about this on Facebook, but wanted to take a moment and expand on some of those thoughts. A lot of them will focus on parenting, which may sound odd from a training/coaching business, but there is a reality that we forget all too often – that those we parent today will be the employees of tomorrow.

So we have an obligation to get it right.

We Created this Problem.

I believe the first step in making change is taking 100% responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, actions and current situation. And the fact of the matter is, we created this problem where "everyone gets a participation ribbon". All those 5, 6 and 7-year-old soccer players didn't award them to themselves. No kid raised their hand and said, "Hey, mom! Give me a ribbon for coming in 10th place!"

And, on the flip side of that coin, no parent (or very few, at least) shows up to the ball field and says to the organizer, "Don't give my kid a ribbon! He/She didn't earn it."

We as a society – and, more specifically, as Baby Boomer and Gen X parents – created a situation where, in order to protect the feelings of our children, we made sure they were rewarded for putting in any amount of effort. And not just a pat on the back. We gave them ribbons and trophies and consolation rounds to "boost their confidence" and "make them feel good about themselves." Maybe you didn't raise your kid(s) that way, but as a collective, "we" did. So stop whining and start to take responsibility for it – it's the only way we'll ever fix the problem.

The Problem We Created Is About Us – Not Them

So, if we recognize and take responsibility for the fact that we've created a generation of young adults who – as so many of you like to say – are "entitled," we also have to take responsibility for changing it. And to do that, we have to understand why we got here.

As I mentioned earlier, we as parents want to protect our children. We want them to feel loved and safe and confident and good about themselves. So that's part of why we try to recognize everyone, regardless of their true achievement. But there's more to it than that, and it is this:

We – as fully developed adults – are just as afraid of feeling disappointment and pain as our children are. And because you don't want to deal with that, you protect your kid from it too.

I know that, as a dad, I don't necessarily want to admit the truth after my daughter's soccer game – that they lost and kind of suck. It's no fun for me either. But, as her parent, I have two choices:

  1. I look at her and say, "You did great! You tried your hardest and had fun! You'll get 'em next time!" (whether or not that's true). OR....
  2. I look at her and say, "How did you feel about that game? Did you put in your best? What can you learn to get better?" We can dissect – together – why they lost. We can come up with a list of things she can do to improve. We can talk about how you learn just as much (or more) from losing as you do from winning – that "failing" does not make you a "failure."

Is the second conversation harder? Hell yes. And, I'm not saying you have to turn into one of those jackass parents who rails against their kid for every mistake. But if they don't get the results they want, you have to let yourself experience pain just as much as they do – it's the only way they grow and learn.

It's Not about the Participation Ribbon

At the end of the day, this conversation – and it's solution – isn't about participation ribbons and it's not even about athletics or other kids' activities. It's about ALL OF US coming to terms with the pain and disappointment in our lives and actually experiencing it (instead of hiding from it).

Think of a time where you've experienced pain and disappointment at work or in your professional life. How did that manifest at home, where your kids experienced it? Did you talk about how you felt, what you learned and/or what you're going to do next? Or did you look for some form of sedation, whether that be with alcohol, drugs, binge-watching Netflix, eating away your sadness or escaping into some other fantasy world?

Kids need to be allowed to SEE YOU LOSE MORE. And they need to see that out of loss comes growth.

Kids also need to see that you can't buy your way to success and recognition. I see a lot of parents who say, "My registration fee paid for that participation ribbon, so why shouldn't they get it?" Sure, that may work for peewee football. But what about when that kid is grown up and competing for a better job with better pay? Will Dad's investment buy them that, too?

I think we all know the answer to that. 

Setting A better Example for the next generation

Sure, maybe we as Millennials are screwed. The majority of us have entered adulthood and our childhoods can't be changed.

But now we're becoming parents and we have the ability to set a better example for the future.

As a Millennial parent, here's how I'm choosing to approach raising my children. Maybe you'll think about these two steps, as well.

1. I will teach them the lesson that, yes, losing sucks. It's supposed to.

Losing was never meant to be masked or hidden or dressed up with a pink bow. Losing was designed to teach you something.

I believe that pain exists in life to help you. It is part of a genius design to make you fucking awesome with impeccable resilience. It was meant to weed out those who just want things handed to them, who don't want to do the work or who just are legitimately not talented in a certain arena – if only to push them toward that thing that they can, instead, be great at.

2. I will remember that how I parent is a reflection of myself, not my children.

The problem isn't participation trophies for everyone. The problem is our collective inability to deal with loss, depression, anger, sadness, disappointment, etc. and choose to learn – and not hide – from it. Remember:

 Your kid will likely not do what you say...THEY WILL DO WHAT YOU DO.

When you get something you didn't earn, do you accept it sheepishly? Or do you do what my Dad taught me (which I've transparently forgotten – I'm no saint) and leave it behind, knowing that you didn't really earn it?

When something doesn't go your way, will you wallow and pout? Or choose to get better (and let your kids see that happening)?

As the next generation of parents, it's time for all of us to level up. Stop helicoptering, coddling and protecting them because of your own fears. Let them experience both the ups and downs of humanity – they'll be stronger for it.

Life is Hard. And that's Okay.

I wanted to finish this post with a story that I think illustrates the point quite beautifully, even though it was a hard experience for all involved...

About a month ago, we had to put one of our family dogs down. It was really my 8-year-old daughter's dog – she had been the one to take care of, play with and love this dog the most. So when that hard time came to say goodbye, I chose to make her go along – to watch as the shots were injected and the circle of life did its thing.

And you know what? It was fucking hard. Hard for her to see her pet die. Hard for me to watch her FULLY EXPERIENCE THE PAIN.

But there were lessons in there. She's stronger now.

Someday, she will be like me and have to move on without her father. Like me, maybe she will be by my side and tell me that it's okay to let go, and that "she's got this." Maybe she will be able to do that with courage.

Not because I allowed myself to hide my own pain...

Not because I allowed her to mask her own pain...

But because we allowed ourselves to feel all of it. Because she earned it.


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