At the Illinois Music Association’s annual piano competition, three pianists in each level win trophies ranking them from first to third place.
Inevitably, there are more than a few teary children who don’t medal. Those kids can get lollipops. If the sugar doesn’t help, parents can purchase award ribbons, so that although they lose the competition, the kids can still feel like winners.
At a time when children are presented with awards for participating or even showing up, it’s not surprising that parents can purchase a ribbon. But every time we give our children an award for something they didn’t legitimately achieve, we’re doing them a disservice that can last significantly longer than the high of receiving the award lasts, said Chris Hudson, founder of Understanding Teenagers.
“Ironically, participation medals don’t build confidence, but they do create entitlement,” Hudson said. “Confidence and resilience don’t come from false praise or rewarding normal behavior.”
While parents may believe that the trophies and ribbons build confidence, the real confidence comes from actively encouraging the kids as they take risks, apply themselves and make a real effort to get something done, Hudson said.
The most supportive parents are those who understand that love and support should be unconditional and untethered from performance, and should focus on process rather than product, Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”
She has her own advice: “Treat a low grade and a high grade similarly through a focus on process: ‘What did you do to get that grade?’ or ‘What study strategies worked this time around, and what might you change for next time?’ rather than focus on the product,” Lahey said.
Process is the most important thing for parents and children to focus on, rather than the end result, she said. This is the highly controllable, education-rich environment, which leads to confidence and learning.
And if parents praise children for doing a great job at sports games, competitions or on an art project — when, in fact, they just went through the motions — kids know better, and it does no good, Lahey said.
“When a child asks a parent, ‘Do you like this painting?’ the best possible answer is, ‘What do you think of your painting?’” she suggested.
The earlier parents can help children develop their sense of self, which is their internal barometer to measure the quality of their own work, the better.
“Our opinion of their creative genius, in the end, no matter how warranted, means very little until they can tell the difference between a slipshod effort and a breakthrough, bravura performance,” Lahey said.
Still, sometimes, a child works hard and still fails.
That’s all part of the learning process, which builds confidence, Lahey said.
“It is not just important to allow kids to fail and to experience the natural consequences of those failures, it’s the basis for learning,” she said. “Kids learn from seeing efforts fail, reassessing their strategy — maybe even throwing the strategy out the window altogether and coming up with an entirely new one — and trying again to see how that new strategy works.”
Lahey said that the most fulfilled people she knows continue to learn throughout their lifetime through failure, and she doesn’t know any brave, curious and accomplished adult who hasn’t figure out how to transform mistakes into learning.
But it’s very difficult for most parents to simply step back and let their child fail, though children make mistakes all the time, said Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of “Teach Your Children Well.”
“You see how many hundreds of times kids make mistakes, and if we think of those things as failures, it’s depressing, and it doesn’t distill confidence,” Levine said. “You have to allow for the fact that there’s a learning curve. We get in the way of our kids’ outcomes when we are so focused on the product.”
Last year, Erik Fisher, psychologist and author of “The Art of Empowered Parenting,” watched his daughter fail in front of all of her friends.
“We tried to give her some guidance that she should be practicing more,” Fisher said.
“Her act in the talent show fell apart, as we thought it might, and she cried afterward, but the next act was a dance she was doing, so she had to get back out there, and she performed wonderfully,” Fisher said.
When they got home, Fisher asked his daughter what she thought went well, what she could have done better and what she learned from her experience.
“Failure offers us moments to grow, to learn and to evolve,” he said. “When we keep our kids from failing, we rob them of that opportunity.”