Yesterday our daughter was once again drawing something weird on a piece of paper. Then she turned to me and asked the classic question: “Do you like my painting?“. I was tempted to reply the usual: “Yes, of course, very beautiful. Good job!” yet something stopped me this time. Instead I asked her back: “Do YOU like your painting?“. She was puzzled. To be frank, so was I. All this triggered me to think about external appreciation and consolation prizes.
I didn’t like the painting. She is able to do much better. She did much better already. Thus, saying that I liked it, would be a lie; but the problem is not that. What I wonder is: if by giving her that “Good Job!” medal for something that she doesn’t deserve, I would actually do her any good?
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In many contests you have that – a consolation prize. A prize for participation. What is the purpose of that? To give you an impression that even if you fail you can still win? That is true: every failure is an opportunity for growth. Yet, this has nothing to do with a consolation prize. It is about the internal work that follows the failure; it is about analysis of what lead to it, about making conclusions and improving next time. What I believe is that the trap with consolation prizes is that they create a sense of entitlement. Entitlement to something that is not truly earned. To note (and it is very important!) that I am not talking about love and belonging here! Everybody is entitled to love and belonging just for who they are. This is purely about achievements, things we do, not people we are.
In Russian language there is an expression which is frequently used and which I truly disagree with: “The most important is not winning, the most important is participation“. No! It should not be just about participation, it should be about striving, about doing your ultimate best, about putting in the effort. And yes, despite all that you can still fail. However, just participation (sometimes for the sake of participation itself) in my view should not be praised.
Another thing is that a kid used to receiving consolation prizes frequently grows up into an adult chasing external affirmation for everything he does. That’s already another aspect, of course. But what I wonder in this respect is: wouldn’t it be better to teach kids as early as possible to appraise the quality of their own work without seeking external appreciation?
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To conclude, I believe that, first, it is important to separate the person from the work. In other words, the fact that the painting is not good doesn’t mean that our daughter is not good (to put it simply). Second, in my view, it should be about encouraging personal judgement, not seeking some “external judges”. And finally, third, I think it makes sense to focus less on results and more on the process. Like I have written in my article on golf (A game of life: Why teaching your kids to play golf is a good idea) sometimes a human effort is really futile and sometimes you are just damn lucky. Therefore the only thing you can do in the end is simply do your ultimate best.