Soundings: And the winner is . . .

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Kerry Temple

I wasn’t disappointed that none of my three kindergartners got an award from their teacher during their elementary school’s award assembly the other day. I was there, but not because I was expecting them to be called to the front of a gym full of kids and dozens of parents perched on wooden bleachers. I was there just to see the sights.

It’s fun watching the kids, and the teachers herding them. It’s fun getting a peek at the place my 6-year-olds spend 30 hours a week. Awards? I sure didn’t care.

But it’s certainly an interesting topic, especially now with a national debate ignited by a Chinese Tiger Mom scolding America for its leniently errant parenting style.

The whole award thing is a topic I’ve spent years thinking about.

My guiding philosophy on awards came to me at a young age when my favorite baseball player explained that winning the MVP award was nice and all but that he always tried his best and was always proud of his achievements, and if awards came along after-the-fact, well, then that was all well and good, but that wasn’t what he set out to accomplish. It was a byproduct, not the goal of his efforts.

Rock solid.

Words to live by.

And yet.

I like getting awards. I get bummed sometimes when this magazine gets left out of the winner’s circle.

And let’s face it, the feelings of disappointment can be especially insidious when you start comparing yourself to others or measuring yourself against the competition. We all get smaller that way.

Human nature just complicates things. Winning and losing gets all tangled up with self-esteem, ego and insecurities, even that nagging, sometimes lifelong black hole of subliminally seeking parental approval.

Some folks are just needier than others. Others are so adequately grounded and self-affirmed that they don’t look for the strokes and head-pats from others to make them feel good about themselves.

It’d be nice to bring children into adulthood with such a healthy sense of self and self-assurance that external congratulations were truly extraneous. But most of us like, and need, to be recognized, if not occasionally honored (though such applause can bring its own discomfort).

Sometimes, though, it seems awards are used to motivate, not reward. That’s a bad trap. For lots of reasons. Even in the workplace, among adults. But it’s an especially risky maneuver for trying to get kids to do what you want. It teases and toys with the psyche in a kind of manipulative way. Think bribery.

Awards, though, do offer a great example for proving that life is unfair. And it’s best to learn young to keep laudatory appreciations in their own place. Put as much stock in them when you lose as when you win.

I coached kids’ sports for years and watched many more games from the sidelines. I’ve witnessed the damaging effects of bullying, excessively heated competition and plenty of moms and dads gone wrong.

I’m fine when no one keeps score when the youngest play, and I’m all for building self-esteem. I have happily chirped, “Everybody was a winner today,” when one of my players asked which team won as we walked off the field. But I’ve always been skeptical of such egalitarianism that hands out awards to everyone for “participation.”

Life just doesn’t work that way. Life is a competition. Winning and losing is part of it all.

But my own kids showed me the other side this past summer. When the final Tee Ball game ended and players from all six teams gathered at sunset and coaches looped around each kid’s neck a gold medal with a red, white and blue ribbon, my children could not have been more elated. They wore their medals proudly, took them to bed, wore them for a few days, then hung them on the mantel hooks once reserved for Christmas stockings. One was even taken to kindergarten show-and-tell a couple of months later.

Much of raising children is preparing them for all this, helping them gallop through this steeple chase of life without the quest for some illusory prize preventing them from enjoying the ride.

With four sons and a daughter all in different spots on the course, and each one unique and their own, I’ve learned there’s no formula for ensuring success, whatever that is, or developing your own internal standards of quality.

But sometimes, when work and play, winning and awards come into the conversation, I just tell them, “Whatever it is in life, it’s always good to do it well enough for you to have fun.”

Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at