Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Toby and the 2K

This past weekend, Nate won his first gold medal in downhill skiing.

It didn’t hurt that the top contender for the title was vacationing with his family in Mexico, but that’s beside the point, right? To give credit where it’s due, the kid who was forced to wiggle his way into the pink GS suit has come a long way. I’d post a photo of him beaming from the medal stand, but I had forgotten my camera.

Epic parental fail.

But it’s not as if you can get a decent shot during these ski award ceremonies anyway. They take place at the end of the day after each race in the very top landing of the ski lodge, which I’m guessing has the capacity to hold about 30 people. Considering that there are approximately 100 racers per day, all hosting an entourage of parents and siblings, whoever decided upon the venue has either a sense of humor I don‘t appreciate, a cozy relationship with the fire marshal, or a nasty vendetta against youth sports. It’s always overcrowded, loud, and hot, with kids clomping all over each other like overgrown puppies in ski boots, parents vying for seating room, and toddlers melting in a puddle of fatigue on the couches and floor. But I’ll be the first to admit: I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

I have a well-known and not always well-received stance on the issue of children and awards. The first time it came up, I was coaching 1st grade soccer. I really enjoyed it; the kids worked hard, they practiced, they listened, and they had fun. They also lost the majority of their games. And when I say they lost, I mean they were annihilated. Despite that uncontested fact however, at the end of the season, the kids had one burning question: “Where’s our trophy?”

I just stared at them. Hadn’t they all been present for that 0-14 humiliation just the week prior? I know I had been, for each one of the agonizing 45 minutes of game time. Their reaction made me wonder: why do we adults bother to carefully schedule games each week if, in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins them? Instead of handing out twelve molded plastic trophies, I took the team to pizza…a more proportionate celebratory activity, in my opinion, and surprisingly cheaper, too! (I wish I had thought of the racket that is www.trophydepot.com.)

In short, I think we give out too many awards, too casually, and frankly, I don’t think we’re doing kids any favors. My children have been involved in organized sports practically since they could walk, and I think I’ve seen it all, from highly competitive situations to the everyone-gets-an-award-feel-good gigs where the coaches chant, “If you had fun, then you won!” (I’m looking at you, tee-ball.)

Awards shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. If everyone is handed a shiny ribbon assembly-line style, the hard work and talent that goes into victory loses its meaning, and that’s not fair to the winner or the other participants coming in behind. Because kids aren’t stupid. Ask any kindergartener the score of their game, and they’ll tell you without hesitation, in any given quarter or inning. What message is sent to kids when all levels of effort and talent are rewarded equally?

When I was about ten, my parents signed me up for a youth bowling league. (Why, Mom and Dad? Just…why?) As it happened, I was a terrible bowler. (I know you’ll all be shocked to hear that this shortcoming has not seemed to hinder my long-term chances for success in life.) At the end of the bowling season, the final ranking was announced during an award ceremony. I wasn’t even listening, because of course I knew where I stood. Imagine my surprise to hear my name called? I went forward to receive a gaudy trophy (yes, a trophy) upon which was inscribed, “Last Place.” My parents laughed so hard, they cried.

I still have it somewhere, because how can someone get rid of something so ridiculous? I was rewarded, with pomp and circumstance no less, for being the absolute worst at something.

There’s something wrong with that picture. Why strip victory of its significance? Or to put it another way, why reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator, instead of encouraging them to rise to the occasion? Kids, in any sport or competition, are not attending regular practice, sacrificing free time, and sweating buckets to score some mass-produced ‘participation’ award. They’re working that hard to win, or at least to better their previous score (just as admirable). I think that as parents and coaches, we should acknowledge that, and respect it.

Despite the claustrophobic conditions, I like the way our ski racing awards are structured, because everyone is acknowledged for their effort, from the last place ranking to the first, but medalists (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) are clearly indicated and celebrated. I appreciate that fact, and not just because it happened to be my kid climbing onto the top platform this time around (because most of the time, it‘s not!).

In fact, one of my most memorable stances against rewarding mediocrity occurred when my child was far from the worthy recipient of recognition. Every year, my kids’ school hosts a 2k running race. All the elementary-aged kids compete, from kindergarten through 6th grade, but Toby and I run too, trailing behind, cutting corners as his willing (but short) legs dictate, and having fun. Last year, when Tobes was three, he actually finished the whole course, albeit with a few haphazard cartwheels thrown in. Afterward, everyone gathered in the shade with ice cream bars to hear the fastest times announced. The honors mostly went to sixth graders who had trained extensively for the race, and we all clapped as the top-ranked kids came forward to receive medals and ribbons.

Apparently for Toby, the results were quite the upset. When it was clear the ceremony was wrapping up, he turned to me, distress clouding his sweaty, chocolate ice cream-smeared face. “Where’s my ribbon?” he asked, pulling my head down to his level to whisper loudly. Unbeknownst to me, he had been on the edge of his seat the whole time, waiting for his name to be called.

I felt for him, I really did, but I also felt the need to set the record straight. I discretely explained to him that only the fastest racers--the older kids--were getting ribbons, not him.

This made no sense to him. “Where’s my ribbon?” he asked again, much more loudly.

“You didn’t win,” I explained again, calmly. “Only the winners get ribbons.” I felt this was a reasonable and benign statement of fact, but the other mothers closest to us were beginning to glance my way with thinly veiled criticism.

Toby agreed. This whole thing was clearly rigged. “Where’s my ribbon?” he repeated at a still higher decibel. He was starting to get hysterical. People were now staring, smiling indulgently at him and glaring at me.

“Didn’t you do well?” some cooed at him, in that annoyingly transparent way that makes it clear they’re speaking through him to me. “You ran that whole thing!”

This proof of his awesomeness only made him wail louder. “Mom, where’s my ribbon?!”

By this point I’m pretty sure I was losing my cool, too. I may have even rolled my eyes in disgust. And people were definitely disapproving of me now, because who does that? Who insists, “You didn’t win!” repeatedly into a preschooler’s face? Well, I do, when said preschooler is living in an ego-inflated dream world, and what’s more, I may have taken it a step further. A friend of mine at the scene (pretending not to know me) told me afterward that my words, verbatim, were: “You don’t get a ribbon just for showing up and breathing!”

Oh, don’t look so shocked. I know at least some of you would have said the same. No? Well in any case, we both calmed down, Tobes drawing deep gulps of air, his tears drying once we were well away from our audience of sympathetic parents, and before long, he felt ready to take back his ice cream and I felt ready to show my face among my peers. Later, when he won the raffle for a mega-blaster water gun under suspicious circumstances (I’m pretty sure the PTO president had dug through the tickets in search of his stub), I accepted it gracefully on his behalf, like any reasonable, over-indulgent mother.

But I stand by my mini outburst, because why should a three-year-old who hopped his way over the finish line like a bunny thirty minutes after the fastest time get the same recognition as the kid who sprinted the course in an impressive nine minutes? He shouldn’t.

That kid was beaming ear-to-ear, the weight of his first place medal heavy on his neck, happily vindicated for all his hard work, and you know what? I’m glad he was up there alone, not sharing the spotlight with my sobbing kid, or even my others, who ran hard but not quite hard enough, because he earned it. And if or when one of my kids crosses that line first, as Nate did this past weekend, I’ll want the same recognition granted to them.

Because that’s a feeling worth competing for.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Toby and I have some training to do. He’s only four now, but I’m telling you, he thinks this could be his year.
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