Often the best lessons start with failure

Life LessonsA junior high in Calgary recently stirred up a controversy when the principal sent home a letter telling parents the school would no longer have an honour roll.

St. Basil Elementary and Junior High School administrators decided that celebrating high achievers hurts the feelings of those who don’t make the cut, so it’s best to scrap the whole thing.

Not surprisingly, the decision drew criticism from parents, kids and pundits alike who feel that downplaying success is equal to encouraging mediocrity.

“Awards eventually lose their lustre to students who get them, while often hurting the self-esteem and pride of those who do not receive a certificate,” the school said in its letter.

It’s a stretch to think kids on the honour roll don’t care about being recognized. But it’s not the honours students whom the school is ultimately letting down. It’s the kids who aren’t.

These kids are getting the false message that the world will level the playing field just to spare their feelings. They’re being conditioned against disappointment, and it won’t help them in the long run.

Youth today are in a tough spot. Every week someone writes an article suggesting they’re a bunch of marshmallows who can barely function on their own. Fellow columnist Jan Wong opined just weeks ago that her university students are too polite and grow offended at the slightest criticism.

Why is anyone surprised at this sensitivity? All our hand-wringing about kids just might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our cures might actually be the disease.

If we treat kids in junior high like they can’t handle a mild blow to their self-esteem, we shouldn’t be shocked when they react that way in university.

When we go to great lengths to shield them from the slightest disappointment, we are deferring a hard but vital lesson: sometimes you will fail, but it’s not the end of the world.

I’m not proposing a return to the days of the dunce cap. We have made important strides in paying attention to young people’s mental health and emotional well-being. But all the constant tinkering around the edges for new ways to make life as painless as possible ultimately does kids a disservice.

The Keller youth football league in Texas recently took a step back from this approach and decided to stop handing out trophies just for showing up. Their decision drew controversy too, but league president Paul Quinones thinks it sends an important message to players.

“You are expected to give 110 per cent in what you do,” he told the Dallas News. “You are not going to get something just because you gave an effort that was expected.”

That’s a good lesson. The world won’t always praise you just for trying.

In my teens, I learned some of my best lessons on the basketball court. I didn’t make my junior high team in Grade 9, but that disappointment motivated me to improve.

By Grade 12 I was team co-captain at a mid-level high school that routinely got crushed by the Queen Elizabeths of the world. I learned that no matter how hard you work, sometimes the other guys are just better. But life goes on.

Above all, I became a good player when I stopped trying to be a flawless one. I learned to accept that taking risks and screwing up was part of the process.

One of the main things kids need to learn is how to be resilient. How to bounce back when things don’t go their way. If we strip them of opportunities to develop that skill, we’re only holding them back.

Chad Lucas and his wife are the busy parents of four kids, aged eight to four.

Halifax Herald , Arts & Life, November 10, 2013 – 6:14pm BY CHAD LUCAS | LIFE WITH KIDS

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