This will be an unpopular statement: it is not fair to the winners to stop keeping score and give everyone a trophy. They say winning isn’t everything, and they are right, but it is something,and it’s also important for a litany of reasons. We need to learn how to lose, and to lose with dignity, but, just as importantly, we need to know what winning feels like, and learn how to win gracefully. These translate into essential, real world skills later in life. We are robbing our children of vital experiences for their social development by discouraging the concept of winners and losers.
Learning to win with grace helps us do things like appropriately manage a promotion, especially when your peers (who may have applied for the same promotion) become your subordinates. A person who has never learned to win with dignity could easily handle the situation badly and end up with a staff that does not respect him/her. Gloating or talking down to former peers is a proven way to create a staff that will undermine and defy you with regularity.
The opposite of this scenario is also true. If we are never allowed to lose, we are not equipped to effectively navigate the disappointment of being passed over for a promotion. We are not capable of being genuinely happy for our peer because we never learned how to properly express that feeling. Instead, we harbor resentment or pout in some other passive aggressive way.
We owe it to ourselves and our society to give the experience of winning and losing to our children. It is such a fundamental experience for a child to know the intense joy of winning as well as the bitter sadness of defeat. Winning, and losing for that matter, encourage the development of socially desirable traits in human beings. These include, but certainly are not limited to, reinforcing the value of hard work and dedication, sportsmanship (called respect and common decency in every other setting), humility, and increased feelings of self-worth.
As a child, winning feels better than almost anything imaginable. Its ability to reinforce and demand repetition is not unlike that of a drug. Wanting to obtain that feeling again will actively encourage hard work in order to increase performance, therefore increasing the chances you will win (and feel good) again. If the feeling of winning encourages good work ethic in a child playing a game, then he or she will internalize the value of working for their achievements in the future. This may mean working diligently to secure a promotion or raise. I suppose it could also mean putting in long hours of research and physical preparation to become the best burglar of all time, but generally speaking, a strong work ethic is a good thing. Losing actually reinforces this as well. If you understand how good it feels to win, and truly care about whatever game you are playing, then the idea of working to improve in order to achieve victory is reinforced.
Respect is a fundamental value in our society. This is true across all settings, and by reinforcing the idea of social prudence through sportsmanship, children are encouraged to be more respectful as adults. The advantages of this are numerous and obvious and don’t need to be listed out individually. Suffice it to say, people who are ‘good sports’ are usually viewed more positively by others both socially and professionally.
Giving everyone a trophy and never acknowledging that there are winners and losers in all things is a (seemingly) noble concept that has its foundation firmly planted in the idea that it helps foster high self-esteem in all children. This is an overly simple idea at best. Obviously, winning can, and does, create high self-esteem. No reasonable person would argue otherwise. What I contend is that losing can also help to develop a positive self-concept and result in high self-esteem.
Losing is frustrating and awful, especially as a child when whatever game you happen to be playing is just about the most important endeavor you have ever engaged in. We want to win because losing sucks. In order to win we have to work hard and commit to achieving a goal.
Learning to be a good sport, especially after a loss, helps us relate to our peers in socially appropriate ways as an adult. This increased ability to communicate effectively leads to a higher number of positive interactions with others both socially and professionally. Those with good communication skills are more successful in their careers. They are usually easily likable people. This is a recipe for increased feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. If others like me, then I must be likable, ergo I like myself. Losing with dignity as a child reinforces the development and internalization of these vital communication skills.
Lastly, but not unimportantly, there is the issue that eliminating winners and losers takes away from the experience of being a child itself. Despite the ways in which winning and losing help to prepare children for adulthood, winning is something that every person should experience. I would gladly lose nine times to win on the tenth. So would you. And so would your kids. This is, and will always be, infinitely preferable to having no chance of winning at all.
Shoving a trophy into the hands of every child and declaring everyone a winner does nothing but create potential difficulties for them in adulthood. It clouds their ability to accurately perceive themselves and develop any sort of realistic self-awareness. They are stripped of the opportunity to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and are ill equipped to receive criticism as an adult. When everyone gets a trophy, it becomes hard to know who actually deserved one in the first place. If everyone is a winner, and everyone is special, is anyone special?
The answer, in case you are wondering, is: not really.
Read more of this chapter and a whole lot of other ranting nonsense like this in my book, The Snowflake Effect: How the Self-Esteem Movement Ruined a Generation.