The Current

Competitive spelling bees show Gen Z kids aren't interested in participation trophies: author

Author Shalini Shankar talks us through the world of spelling bees, and the insight they give into the aspirations and psychology of Generation Z. Shankar says these kids have seen the world as competitive from a young age, and they're not afraid to fight for their spot.

Teenage and pre-teen students in spelling bees not afraid to fight to win, says Shalini Shankar

Karthik Nemmani, 14, from McKinney, Texas, lifts his trophy after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2018. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
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The world of spelling bees showcases a generation of children ready to fight for the top spot in a world more competitive than ever before, according to one author and academic.

"The 'everybody gets a trophy' generational ethos, I think, has finally been put to rest — these children don't want participation trophies," said Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University.

The author used the Scripps National Spelling Bee to study Generation Z — young people born after 1997 and into the 2000s — and found a generation eager to compete and stand out.

Shankar spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about her new book Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path To Success. Here is part of their conversation.

How prestigious is the Scripps National Spelling Bee?

It's the biggest stage in the world for spelling … these are the best of the best kids.

Shalini Shankar used spelling competitions to study young people for her book Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path To Success. (Kholood Eid; Hachette Book Group)

In fact there's a new word that's come out of this — what is it, spellebrities?

Spellebrity, yes. This is a word that got coined along the way. Another is spellfie, which is cute. They take selfies of each other at the Spelling Bee.

How old are the kids?

The youngest ones can be six years old and it goes up to 15. Most that I've met at the National Spelling Bee tend to be between the ages of 12 and 14.

Are they out if they misspell one word?

That's it. It's over if they misspell even just one letter, in one word.

Rishi Damarla with his mother Sailaja Choppa and father Rao Damarla, from Windsor, Ont. He is using flashcards to prepare for his first appearance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)
Competitions have taught him about winning and losing, Rishi Damarla tells CBC Windsor's Sanjay Maru. 2:30

How competitive are the contestants?

They're very competitive in the way that they compete against themselves and the dictionary, as they've told me. But they're not very competitive with each other.

They're very collegial, they're very friendly. So when you go to the National Spelling Bee, it's a very friendly place, but on stage these kids are really giving it their best.

How competitive are their parents?

That's an interesting question. I would say the parents are very supportive … often it's the child who's driving the process, and the parents who are making every sacrifice necessary to allow them to excel at it.

So why do these kids do it? What makes them want to be elite spellers?

For some of them it's a love of language that has morphed into a competitive activity, which is on the rise among this generation — Generation Z. And then with others, they've just been participating in the Spelling Bee and watching it, and this is a contest that really drew their attention, that they wanted to excel in.

Shankar in a 'spellfie' — a new word for a selfie taken at a spelling bee — with competitors Kate Miller and Amber Bond at the national competition in National Harbor, Md., 2018. (Submitted by Shalini Shankar)

Tell me more about what you learned about Generation Z from watching spelling bee contestants.

The Spelling Bee has turned into what a lot of the spellers called "brain sports," and it's analogous to the ways that perhaps friends of theirs … [are] on cooking shows, they're on fashion shows. There are all of these things that kids are doing younger and younger.

This is certainly something we see with Generation Z: a lot of the broader goals that were once relegated to the adult world have trickled down into childhood. A lot of these kids are taking a very kind of pre-professional approach to things that were not originally part of childhood. Or at least a generation ago, you didn't see too many kids doing that. As well, we see a lot of political activism and social activism, and a real interest in the world around them.

The kids you were meeting were happy to go up to that high-pressure competition?

Yeah, and it was something that … they seemed to want to develop in themselves, to develop that kind of poise and that kind of confidence. Whether or not they were going to win was secondary to how they presented themselves on stage.

Winning streak could relate to how different cultures emphasize education, Shalini Shankar tells Anna Maria Tremonti. 2:03

And of course, we're talking about exceptionally high-achievers. How does what you learned about these kids apply to the children who are Generation Z more broadly?

This is a really outlier set of Generation Z, and so certainly what I saw with them isn't going to apply to every child. But what we do see is an overall increase in competition.

The millennial generation that precedes Generation Z is one of the largest in American history. So everything has become more competitive, from college admissions to the job market. And these kids have become aware of that through their parents, and they've seen it in their schools. So they know that they have to stand out in some way, in order to thrive and to succeed.

We have seen situations where, in competitions, all kids win some kind of a prize, and this kind flies in the face of that. What's the significance of that?

Absolutely. The "everybody gets a trophy" generational ethos, I think, has finally been put to rest. These children don't want participation trophies. They know exactly who has won and that is the person to be celebrated.

They have their own road that they travel to get to the National Spelling Bee as their reward, and that is what they hold on to. The kinds of skills they developed, the sense of self-confidence, the perseverance they may have cultivated along the way. These are the things that matter to them, much more than a piece of hardware that they didn't actually earn.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Karin Marley.

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