Millennials treated like winners, feel like losers


Photo by Abby Blitz

Skyler Froese

As Generation X are latch key children, the millennials are a generation of winners — but not in the traditional sense. Prizes for attendance and participation are now commonplace, and these rewards face much criticism.
Supporters believe making every child feel like a champion builds confidence, but those in opposition think it gives students unachievable expectations and detractions from hard work.
“The ‘every child [is] a winner’ concept was perhaps created to encourage kids to believe in themselves more,” counseling psychologist and author Dr. Carl Pickhardt said. “Also, it may have been intended to reduce the possibility of any child feeling like a ‘loser,’ but it creates a high performance expectation in which doing well seems to be more important than enjoying what one is doing.”
Senior Logan Reuter felt a similar pressure to perform since third grade. His parents created a competitive environment as he grew up playing football. Although they remained interested in his sports, Reuter began to lose the love for the game.
“Coming into high school, there were high expectations for me in football,” Reuter said. “I just didn’t love football enough to try hard and make those expectations a reality. And when I didn’t meet the expectations, I think it caused me to like it even less.”
Dr. Pickhardt acknowledges this struggle. He believes when a child is told he or she is a winner and is expected to be a winner, the stress can begin to ruin the fun of the activity.
“Telling kids that they are a champion is generally meant to motivate a child to do well. However, the message can distort self-evaluation and create unrealistically high expectations, leading to let down when discovering that doing extremely well in one group does not mean they are going to do that well in another,” Dr. Pickhardt said. “Feeling one is not measuring up to the champion they were told they were can create a lot of performance pressure, self-disappointment and spoil the pleasure of the play.”
Reuter eventually divorced from football. While it did not hurt his relationship with his family, it altered other parts of his life — particularly how he interacted with his peers.
“It changed from always talking to my friends about football and how we were looking forward to the next game and people wishing me good luck and cheering me on, to me being the one wishing my friends good luck and cheering them on,” Reuter said.
While his parents had always been his biggest supporters, they were by no means heartbroken by their son leaving the sport.
“I think my parents did a very good job at pressuring me into trying my hardest but holding back and putting my best interests first when I told them I no longer wanted to play,” Reuter said. “I was very happy they handled it how they did, and, although they wanted me to continue playing, they held back and let me choose what made me happy.”
Dr. Pickhardt believes parents such as the Reuters must be cognizant of their child’s feelings toward their extracurriculars.
“Seeing a child failing in a non-curricular activity, a parent might want to check out if failing was a function of lack of fit, or if failing effort reflected a loss of interest or caring,” Dr. Pickhardt said. “Then parents can encourage the young person to find another activity that feels more congenial, inviting and rewarding.”
Even though Reuter’s time in the sport ended, it impacted his life deeply to be pushed forward and supported in an sport that he felt no passion for. Off the field, a similar phenomenon stands for many children. Teachers push students forward in learning, sometimes with more confidence than is warranted. Civics teacher Kelley Wittenborn has seen this dissonance occur in her career. She feels truthful yet sensitive conversations are what will keep students on track.
“There is no ‘finish line’ to learning, which is why I think … that teachers are hesitant to tell a student that they aren’t ‘good’ at math or writing,” Wittenborn said. “What they really should be clearly communicating is where a student is being successful in the skills and then highlight for that student, with specific examples, how they can still grow, change and develop.”
Wittenborn sees many students misvaluing their own scores. Rather than an overall marker of the person they are, scores are just a reflection of a single snapshot of a student. She does not believe a bad score is always bad. It could just be a reminder that progress is coming.
“I just had a conversation with a student about this yesterday who was upset that she got a low score on thesis in her essay,” Wittenborn said. “I explained to her that, yes, we are assessing you on a skill that you haven’t perfected yet — which I know to some students seems unfair — but our goal, as teachers, is to help you grow, develop and progress in learning and achievement. The scores simply provide feedback on where you are now and where you can grow and improve.”
Wittenborn also mentioned that when a student is faced with the disappointment that they are not progressing at the level they thought they would be, it is imperative for the teacher to have a detailed conversation with the student.
“A balance of being honest about the student’s current progress,” Wittenborn said, “but also the encouragement that there are ways that they can improve and better their scores or current progress is important.”
The praise that comes with all of this is good for a child’s confidence. But if those A’s are not all accurate representations of students’ performances, a teacher is faced with what will be sacrificed: self-image or authenticity.
“I think that, like most things in life, a good balance is necessary. You never want to straight-up lie to a student about their current place of progress in your class,” Wittenborn said. “That doesn’t benefit anyone and especially not the student, but, at the same time, telling a kid that got a [two out of four] that his paper was bad, and he should pitch it and just do it over is extremely disheartening and damaging for a student’s progress.”
Dr. Pickhardt agrees the education system needs to focus more on the progress than on the grade. She and Wittenborn agree that scores are like trophies; they can give a lot of confidence and motivation. But these rewards can also deter children from following the path inside of them to success.
“The motivation behind giving every kid a trophy is usually to spread the recognition of everyone’s effort and individual contribution around,” Dr. Pickhardt said. “Not giving trophies encourages playing just for enjoyment’s sake. Trophies provide extrinsic motivation. Enjoyment drives intrinsic motivation.”