Educators and parents are not doing children any favours by putting off important lessons on what it means to fail, writes sports columnist Don Power.

Several years ago, my son arrived home from school, excited news to share. It was May, and he and his schoolmates were headed to the park the next day for hours of outdoor fun.

"Ah, Sports Day,” I replied. “You will love that. You’ll have three-legged races, sack races, and the winners get medals or ribbons. It’s a lot of fun.”

“No, Dad,” he said, looking me straight in the eye. “It’s not Sports Day. It’s Fun Day. Miss (the teacher) said we’ll all get a ribbon, because we’re all equal.”

This became one of those moments you remember in your children’s lives. So I did the normal thing: I sat him down and told him the truth.

The blunt truth 

“Son, we’re not all equal,” the lecture began.

“Some kids can run faster than other kids. Some kids can swim better than others. Some kids can sing, and some can’t. Everybody is different. When you go to school tomorrow, ask Miss, ‘If everybody is equal, why do you put marks on tests?’ ”

Not being a shy child, he asked the teacher exactly that.

After school that day, she called me.

“What are you doing to me?” she asked in exasperation.

“I’m doing to you? What kind of crap are you teaching the children? Everybody’s equal? You’re lying to the kids!”

Child playing goal in a soccer game

A child plays soccer at King George V pitch in St. John's. (John Gushue/CBC )

Sadly, the trend that says every kid has the exact same skills set is growing in our school system. In primary and elementary school, children can’t be cut from school teams, choirs, whatever. If you want to participate, then damn it, you can participate.

Don’t know what a basketball looks like? No problem, we’d love to have you on the team.

Can’t sing? Don’t worry. Just stand on the bleachers, smile and lip-sync the words.

Sure, it’s an all-inclusive world these days.

Kids? They don’t need to know everybody’s not equal, until they get in the real world and the university professors eat them for lunch.

Clearly the pendulum on coddling our children has swung way too far in the wrong direction. Let’s just put them in bubble wrap until we throw them out into the real world.

What’s wrong with letting the children experience disappointment? Why can’t a child be dropped from a Grade 6 basketball team?

Who decided that children are so fragile they can’t handle getting cut from a team? Or is it the parents who can’t handle the news? Maybe it’s not something the teachers — who are often the coaches or choir directors — want to be doing. 

Kids are more resilient than we think

I’ve coached children in a couple of sports and they handle disappointment better than adults.

If nobody can see the score, then there’s no score. But the kids know the difference. They know the score.

When a hockey team loses a game, the kids are sad for 30 seconds, but they get into the dressing room, and talk turns to what’s happening for the rest of the day. “Can Dylan come over to play?” or something similar is the first question asked.

There’s no moping around, muttering to themselves about the loss. It’s done, over. We move on.

Meanwhile, outside the dressing room, the distraught parents are discussing plays that could have been made to alter the outcome.

Most minor hockey associations won’t report a score with a goal differential of more than five, for fear of embarrassing the losing team! Some places come up with the idiotic idea that turning off the scoreboard makes things better. If nobody can see the score, then there’s no score.

But the kids know the difference. They know the score.

Falling down is not the problem

I remember one game one of my teams played eight or nine years ago. We were stronger than the opponents, and the score was out of hand, in our favour. We came up with new rules, such as making three or four passes before taking a shot. Didn’t matter, because the kids still scored.

Suddenly, one of the kids turned around to me — he’s nine at the time — and says, “Coach, this is no fun for either team, is it?”

The scoreboard read 6-1 at the time.

There are going to be many times in life when failure occurs. But unlike the school system, your boss is not going to send you home saying, "That’s OK. Johnny can try again tomorrow."

The best course of action is to learn early how to deal with failures, unsuccessful attempts and last-place finishes. Falling down is not the problem. Falling down and not getting up is.

By thinking we are protecting our children what we actually are doing is setting them up for failure.

Right now in schools across the province, and in minor hockey associations and in gymnasiums, teams are being selected for competition.

Read that again: competition. A game where there’s a winner and a loser.

If don’t teach our kids that everybody can’t win every day or game, aren’t we doing them the biggest disservice of all?

Something needs to change, because no matter how we try to gloss things over, how hard we try to cover the scoreboard, kids know the score.