Why losing is good for kids


First aired on Q (10/09/13)

Today's children are growing up in a "trophy culture," in which everyone gets rewarded, not for winning or excelling but simply showing up. But according to Ashley Merryman, losing is good for you, and the attempt to protect kids from failure is misguided. She's the co-author of the bestselling NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children and most recently Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. She spoke to Q about why the "everyone's a winner" philosophy around sports and achievement is bad for kids, and for society in general.

According to Merryman, the rationale behind the practice "is that if we reward kids, that we constantly praise them, and we take away the idea that they're going to be labelled as failures, if we give everyone a trophy, then they'll be braver to try new things, to achieve, because they'll already have this belief that they're capable and that they can do it."


But research doesn't bear that out, she told host Jian Ghomeshi. In fact, studies have shown that "the more you tell a kid something like 'you're so smart, you're so special,' they get invested in that label to the point that they're afraid to do anything to lose." In some cases, researchers found that "kids told them they would rather cheat than screw up."

Merryman emphasized that there's a positive aspect to failure that kids are not being exposed to. "It's not about teaching kids to lose per se," she explained. "It's more about helping them realize that they need to be resilient and persistent in the face of failure. If they never lose, how are they going to learn to come back from that, and try again?"

Merryman added that not everything should be about competition, especially at a young age. "Beginners, novices, need to have a space where there's no trophies, no judging, because they're just little kids learning how to kick the ball," she said.

She also pointed out that children themselves recognize differences in ability, and aren't fooled by the practice of awarding trophies to everyone. Kids as young as four "can tell you who is the best reader in class, who's the best at drawing, who's the best athlete."

In Top Dog, Merryman argues that non-stop recognition does not inspire children to succeed, and in fact can cause them to underachieve. She described studies in which "researchers praise kids, then give them an experience of failure and retest them, and find that they did worse than they did on the first test."

Avoiding the disappointment of failure isn't helpful in the long run. "As adults, we're going to be in losing situations, we should be prepared for it," she said. Moreover, as adults we can't expect to be rewarded in, say, our workplace, just for showing up.

When asked what changes she would like to see, Merryman suggested that "participation medals should stop." She cited the U.S. military, in which "medals are not given, but earned." But she also emphasized that a medal or trophy needn't be only for winning. The key thing is that there's effort involved. "If a child worked hard, give him an award for most improved."

Merryman's main concern is that children learn to cope with failure. "It's not about humiliating kids, it's about building them so that they know how to overcome difficulty."

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