There is a lot of mockery in the world for Millennials who cannot handle competition. It is pointed out that in an effort not to make any child “feel bad” or feel inadequate or feel a failure that “gold trophies” were handed out to everyone. This attitude galls me, because it is an exercise in extremes that does not address the reality that occurs in between.
Competition between individuals can be a glorious thing. Humans are, by nature, very social, and we do look at each other and compare one another. This is an innate part of us and cannot – nor should it be – eradicated. Competition ensues, where individuals try to figure out “who is better.” My three children used to create glorious white board drawings and then try to evaluate “whose was better.” They would attempt to rope me into adjudicating their creations. I often demurred. Or, I pointed out positive salient points in each child’s drawings. Or, I asked them what was the goal of the drawing? (They usually had a stated goal.) Occasionally, one of them had met the mark very well, and the other two really hadn’t come close, and I would point that out. Of course, they wanted me to declare a clear winner even when, quite frankly, all three drawings were pretty equivalent. I refused to cooperate.
However, there are some areas in life where it is a simple thing to determine a winner. My daughter loves to run. She was endlessly challenging me and her peers in footraces. Once she was about 10 years old, she would run faster than I did (i.e. my longer legs no longer gave me an effective advantage over her speed.) Since running is not my preferred sport, from that point on I simply acknowledged her superiority in that area of life. Oh, but she tells me of all of the times she challenged peers (especially the boys) to footraces and arm wrestling and won the contest. She relishes all of her wins, and her losses bolster her determination to improve. Competition can often spur the human soul to greatness.
But this is not the only outcome of competition. And humans have varied abilities, and some of us have profound weaknesses in certain areas. One of my sons has some of these profound weaknesses. One son struggles mightily with focusing for long periods of time on “boring” subjects, he also struggles with “normal” conversational interaction, and has a very low frustration tolerance. At the same time, he loves interacting with others…but sometimes they don’t so love interacting with him. A couple years back when he was 13 he was eligible to participate in a program at our church called “Coming of Age.” He couldn’t always go to the Sunday meetings because he spends half his time at his father’s home, and his father doesn’t support religious studies. Also, he isn’t really into “Sunday School” much himself. But he went to some of the activities and he interacted with his mentor for the program. He didn’t fulfill most of the goals of the program. In the spring there was a Sunday service to honor all of the teens who had completed the program. My son’s mentor went up to speak about him. I was a little trepidatious, wondering what would be said about him. I didn’t want them to lie and say that he had completed the program – he had not done that. But he had participated in some parts of the program, and he was very keen on the parts he had participated in. His mentor stood with my son at her side, smiled, and told the congregation about how my son “had shown up.” No, he had not completed all of the goals – but he came, he participated, despite his father’s antipathy. (His twin had not done this much.) His mentor was pleased with what he had done, and shared this with the congregation. My son beamed. He has struggled so mightily to interact in groups the way that everyone wants him to. And here he was, having his efforts publicly applauded. I teared up.
There are multiple facets to human efforts. Yes, we compete with our peers. But we also have other competitions going on. It may be with ourselves – goals to maintain a behavior, or to gradually improve in some area. It may just be an effort to maintain one’s autonomy or self-worth in a challenging situation. Yes, we can applaud those who achieve excellence – by winning footraces, or art competitions, or arm wrestling, or getting high scores on exams. We can applaud all those who undertake a large task – graduating from high school or college, or completing the requirements to become an Eagle Scout. And there is nothing wrong with giving encouragement and approbation to small milestones as well. Such as just “showing up” when it wasn’t necessary to do so, when the deck was already stacked against you, but deciding actively to take part. It is hard for us to know how much effort was involved in “showing up” – perhaps it was miniscule, perhaps it was huge. We never know when acknowledging someone for “showing up” today may give that individual the stamina to do more tomorrow.
So, no, we don’t need to hand out trophies to everyone. And, yes, we should hand out trophies to those who clearly do outstanding work. And when we see someone putting forth effort, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that effort as well – because that acknowledgement is the seed that can blossom into so much more.