Ronda Walker: stop apologizing, celebrate hard work and excellence

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Spring is in the air and little league baseball and softball fields across the country are filled with players, coaches and fans. Young kids are experiencing the crack of the bat for the very first time. Seasoned players are walking onto the field and taking in the smell of the freshly cut grass, the glow of the lights, the perfection of the bright white chalk that lines home plate.

It’s springtime in America and that means baseball! But it also means something else, something unexpectedly shocking and disheartening.  When did we as American society begin to devalue success? When did we begin to make excuses for being the best? When did that hook drop down and snag us in the cheek? Was it the excesses of the 1980s that expanded the chasm of the haves and have nots that created this resentment toward success? Is it white post-colonial guilt that has led to a weakened approach to competition?

Instead of celebrating hard work and excellence we have become near apologetic when we do well. In some illogical and displaced attempt to make everyone feel good all of the time we’ve decided that no one should be elevated above another, for any reason. A great societal equalization program that we begin to implement full tilt when our children are in grade school. We see it in academic standards and teaching methodology in public schools across the country. But perhaps the most glaring example of our fear of winners and losers can be seen on the little league ball field.

Children and young people everywhere are learning the joy of sports, they are learning the invaluable lessons of teamwork and effort. They are learning the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But wait, our politically correct worldview has decided we need to spare our kids from the agony of defeat. Yes, we must save their tender hearts from sadness and disappointment. Let the kids have fun, there’s no need to keep score, no need for winners and losers. And when the season is over, let’s just give all of them a trophy – they’re all winners.

For the record, yes I am anti-participation trophy, but I will not rehash that argument here other than to say acknowledging the effort of every child on every team is a worthwhile endeavor. Such acknowledgement can be accomplished through the awarding of certificates, or perhaps a baseball or some other relevant token. To diminish the meaningfulness of a trophy by awarding one to both the winning team and the losing team creates a bent toward mediocrity in both groups. Will every swimmer at the Olympics in Rio this summer receive a gold medal? Certainly not! Will all members of the Olympic swim team receive special recognition for their accomplishments and efforts? Yes, they will and they should.  

But let’s get back to the whole agony of defeat thing. We do not need to crush our children in order to make them tough. It is not necessary for us to hit our children in order for them to understand the difference between pleasure and pain. However, when we teach our children that there is no correlation between hard work and success and we pour our effort into making life easy for them we fail them. It is when we want something badly enough that we invest our time, energy, and spirit into achieving our goal that we can appreciate the victory, the success.

The main problem with protecting our children from failure and disappointment is we are lying to them and creating a rocky and false foundation for them to build their life expectations upon. There will never be a time in their life when there aren’t winners and losers and we need to teach our children how to both win and lose graciously. Instead of constantly gathering up all the pillows we can find and following our kids around with a cushy safety net, we must allow them to fail and learn to properly process disappointment and we must teach them to succeed with grace and humility.

It is not our job as adults to prevent our children from ever experiencing failure and disappointment, our job is to be nearby when it happens and help them process those emotions and deal with the disappointment in a productive and healthy way, always assuring them of our love and support. That is the charge of parenting and it is tough work. As parents, we must stop taking the easy way out. No parent enjoys seeing their child red faced with tears of disappointment, but it is lunacy to think our role is to prevent that from ever happening. No, our role is to equip our children with the life skills necessary to cope with myriad emotions.

Because I assure you, when they leave our nest no one will be running around behind them with a pillow in case they fall. Not their college professor, not their employer, not life, so why are we doing this for them and creating these false expectations? It is a disservice to them and to society in general.

Last week I had the opportunity to help coach my daughter’s softball team. Margaret is seven years old and this is her first year to ever play softball. In the course of the past month she has gone from not knowing how to orient herself to home plate, to smashing the ball to center field for a stand up double. That improvement didn’t just happen organically, it came as a result of practice, focus, and hard work (and for the record, a lot of fun).

From the beginning we taught Margaret the two most important things about playing sports are to listen to your coach and have a great attitude – do that, we assured her, and in time the skills will develop. After several weeks of practice she had her first ever at bat, and she struck out. Her form was decent, her swing was solid, she just wasn’t connecting with the ball. She was disappointed in her strike out, she wanted to do better, she wanted to hit the ball. We applauded her efforts and encouraged her to keep listening to her coach and keep her positive attitude. She did both, and now she is connecting with the ball.

What an injustice we would have done Margaret if we as her parents would have intervened and spared her from the sting of that first strike out – of those first eight strike outs. She’s only seven years old, why do we count balls and strikes anyway? She’s just seven years old, this is too soon for her to have to process disappointment. She’s just seven years old, let’s not keep score and let everyone make it on base.

And just like that we rob our children of some of the most critical foundational life lessons they will ever get. During the early years of cognitive formation when they are figuring out how to put two and two together, we throw them a curve and tell them sometimes two and two is one. It isn’t.

Last week our team won 17 to 8 and at one point, no doubt in frustration, the opposing coach mumbled as he walked past me, “they’re only 7 and 8 year olds.” He said that just after I had pointed out to the umpire a procedural violation by one of their players. He was right, they are 7 and 8, but why is that too young to teach them the importance of playing by the rules, to do their best? We are teaching these kids how to succeed in softball, and in turn how to succeed in life and in order to do that we must teach them the teamwork, hard work, and fair play. Why have we decided success and excellence cannot coexist with fun and happiness?

Moreover, why have we decided that we need to protect our children from success and excellence? We can teach, encourage, and even push our children in a kind and nurturing manner. We can be tough on our kids and still love them with every ounce of our being. I would even suggest true parental love is inextricably linked with a desire to correct and improve our children.

Can some parents and coaches push it too far; of course they can and too often do. I am not speaking of those out of control adults who lack reason and judgment and push kids in an unreasonable manner. They are wrong in their approach and the results of their actions are debilitating. However, the same can be said of those adults on the opposite end of the spectrum that fail to see the benefit of discipline.

Winning is fun, and it is ok to win. Teach your child to be their very best, to work their hardest, to leave it all on the field. They will not always emerge victorious, but they will always emerge as better people.

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Ronda M. Walker is a member of the Montgomery County Commission, a wife and a mother of four.

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