No Gold Star

We have some pretty fantastic kids. My sentiment is not uncommon — most parents think they have fantastic kids. Some are quicker to dismiss the not so fantastic parts than others, but it’s natural for parents to love their children and want their children to be accepted and valued by the world around them.

The days of Upward sports are gone for us. Our older two boys played when they were much younger, but that phase has passed. For the handful of people who aren’t familiar with Upward sports — our experience was limited to basketball — it’s a sports league set up like many recreational leagues, except that it incorporates a few added layers of feel good. Before every game, every single player ran through “the tunnel” to heart-pumping music and had his/her name announced over the intercom. Every kid played in every game and playing time was diligently tracked by coaches so each child was treated fairly. Halftimes included Bible studies and times for reflection for both players and parents. And after every game, there was an awards ceremony. Every child on every team received a star to place on their uniform. Best defensive player, best offensive player, most Christlike. And to uphold the spirit of fairness, stars for effort and sportsmanship were given to all the other team members. No one was left out. Scores for the games were not displayed for team members and spectators to see — they were written down by scorekeepers on the sidelines, I think with the hopes that by the end of the game and the awards ceremony, no one would even care to ask…who won the game? It was utopian and removed as much of the win-lose dynamic of the game as possible.

I’m not dissing Upward sports entirely. There were things I enjoyed. The atmosphere was always positive for coaches, players, and parents, and I like incorporating the Bible into the things our kids are doing. But as I think back to those years of Upward basketball, I feel a twinge of distaste. Upward sports might have been fair and fun and inclusive…but it wasn’t reality.

What is reality?

There are always winners and losers in life. Some kids make the team…and some don’t. Kids sit on benches…sometimes for entire games…sometimes for entire seasons. Some kids go to more practices than other kids, work just as hard as everyone else, and still get no court time during the game. Teams keep score. There aren’t special awards for every kid regardless of effort or aptness. Some kids have a load of talent and ability, but when a new player comes with just a bit more skill or intuition or training, the playing time they thought was theirs vanishes. Other kids will be recognized. Other kids will be applauded. Other kids will rise to the top, even if our kids are doing their best. And it’s nearly impossible to leave every game with sunshine in your heart. This is reality.

Last weekend, we attended an awards banquet for our oldest son’s cross country team. He had a great season and running seems to be a sport in which he has some natural talent. He’s fast. He went to every practice he could and worked hard every time. During the awards ceremony, our son was recognized for his participation on the team which was the same recognition given to every kid regardless of effort or performance or results. He participated…and he participated well! I won’t deny him a season of hard-earned, sweat-producing, hill-climbing, miles-enduring participation. And even though I felt like his season was worthy of more recognition, the special awards were given to other boys. Boys whose effort and talent and sportsmanship were more remarkable than our sons. And he was not the only boy who did not receive a special award; rewards aren’t special if everyone receives them. Only a handful of runners on the team received special recognition, because…there are always winners and losers in life.

I can bash the philosophy where everyone gets a gold star…until it’s my child who doesn’t receive the gold star. I can preach about the dangers of raising entitled kids who think everything should be handed to them…until it’s my kid who doesn’t get the special award for being an average team member. I can say it’s all about the team…until it’s my kid who rides the bench game after game. I can say that competition is good for kids and adversity teaches them how to survive in the real world…until my kid faces competition or adversity, and then I find myself looking for that coach who’s still handing out stars for effort and sportsmanship. You showed up today! Here…this award’s for you. I might say I don’t value that approach, but living out the my kid isn’t the best life is harder than I’d like to admit.

My journey with youth sports is relatively short…we still have years ahead of us on this road. Years to help them learn how to win and lose well. Years to learn myself what it looks like to win and lose well, not only in games, but also in the bigger scope of life. Other people get the accolades, recognition, promotion, pat on the back. Other people make more money. Other people go on nicer vacations. Other people get invited to do things. Sometimes we are recognized and sometimes we do get invited and sometimes we are the ones chosen…but most of the time, our path isn’t the one that ends in a special award. There are always winners and losers in life.

I asked our son how he felt after the awards ceremony, after seeing other team members receive more prestigious awards. He said, “Well. It gives me motivation to work harder.” How many times have I wanted an award without wanting to put in the hard work required to receive it? I want the pay out without buying in. I want someone to recognize, include, offer, choose, applaud, select, thank me without really doing much of anything at all to earn it. Hard work is hard. What am I modeling for my kids? Am I modeling a gold star, I showed up so where’s my award mentality, or am I showing them how to work hard regardless of the accolade or recognition at the end? Am I placing too much focus on the reward itself or am I instilling in them a desire to give maximum effort regardless of the task? Am I being a gracious loser and a gracious winner or do my insecurities and pride and jealousies visibly seep out and show my children that I might talk a good talk, but when the rubber hits the road, being the best really is the only acceptable option?

No one likes to lose. I don’t relish the idea of my children facing adversity. I don’t jump at the chance to throw them into situations where I know they’ll be left out, benched, not chosen, not rewarded. But if I can settle into allowing them to experience defeat and hardship, it will benefit them as young men who will someday lead their own families on the hard journeys of winning and losing. Celebrate the wins. Accept the losses. There are always winners and losers in life.

“The circumstances of a saint’s life are ordained of God. In the life of a saint there is no such thing as chance. God by His providence brings you into circumstances that you can’t understand at all, but the Spirit of God understands.” – Oswald Chambers

“We know that all things work together for good to those who love God…” Romans 8:28

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