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The Feel-Good Failure

Have we gone too far by nurturing a"feel-good," entitlement-based mentality for kids today?

Kids today grow up surrounded by an "everyone's a winner" message-but reality is, not everyone can win first place or make an A-plus or be the popular kid. So what happens when kids experience failure, rejection, or exclusion-especially if we've set them up to believe that life will always be fair and everyone's entitled to equal accolades, standing, and possessions? Have we gone so far promoting a feel-good culture for kids that we're shortchanging them by not teaching them how to lose or fail? Cruise through these insights, cultural snapshots, and expert advice that shed light on this cultural phenomenon-then join the conversation.

An Entitlement- Free Outlook

When it comes to reversing kids' assumptions that they're entitled to win, receive, and achieve, work to redirect their thinking. I recommend moving forward to "entitlement-free" rather than backward to pre-entitlement thinking of You get what you get and you don't get upset. Build constructively on the notion that "everyone's a winner" (or, better articulated: Everyone has strengths, unique abilities, and talents). Yes, everyone's a winner-just not at the same time or in the same ways.

Parents, teachers, and coaches are facilitators for children to grow into problem-solvers and solution-makers through challenging situations. Children often take their cues from adults when they fall apart after taking second place or get a low test score. Conversely, if adults are emotion coaches hearing kids' struggles and helping them find constructive perspectives, kids learn flexibility and resilience.

  • Encourage humor. Prepare children for potential outcomes. If a child is a star athlete or an A-plus student, then help that child generate empathy for kids who aren't those things. Bring different perspectives and personalities into your discussions. Tell silly stories about everyone crossing the finish line at the same time-one child with untied shoes, one with a leg cramp, one riding a tiger (silliness and absurdity can teach, too). Grapple with scenarios together. How about a teacher who gave everyone A's? How would that feel-fair? honest? effective?
  • See others' perspectives. Ask kids what makes "winners" more successful than others. Luck? Talent? Effort? Why or why not? Guide kids to see that their effort toward the goal is what matters, not the end result. Research is clear that praise is most effective when focused on kids' effort and the process itself rather than the outcomes, so encourage kids for their attempts and strategies.
  • Guide kids to see and develop personal strengths and interests. The child who's chosen last on the playground may be the one who can help other kids with math. Help kids understand that our strengths and skills aren't the same-and that's good. There are good reasons we're all created differently; wouldn't it be boring if we weren't? Spend time with kids exploring their gifts, talents, and interests.
  • In the end, check back to see whether winning really mattered.So often children are disappointed because they think the outcome or result is the measure of the experience. Try asking kids these questions to help them think through whether winning really is all that matters:
    • Would you still want to play the game if you never came in first or won?
    • What do you like about playing a sport aside from winning?
    • What do you think that grade measured?
    • What did you learn from the experience?
    • What would you do differently if you could do it over?

    Whenever you're working to redirect kids' attitudes of entitlement, remember that parents bring insight, perspective, and values to each of these discussions. Kids and their parents are learning together how to think and feel in challenging, real-life situations in our current culture. The hardest part of entitlement-free thinking is taking time to slow down to carve out a unique, humble identity as a family and for each child.

Karen Deerwester is the owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting and author of The Entitlement-Free Child (Sourcebooks, Inc.).

The Resilience Factor

"Children who face adversity are more likely to persevere if they have a set of cognitive and emotional skills known as self-regulation. These skills include seeing the consequences of one's actions, planning ahead, setting goals, being focused and attentive, and especially learning to be proactive," says John Buckner, Ph.D. "On the non-cognitive side, self-regulation means learning to control emotions such as anger and frustration. These are the building blocks of effective coping in life." Buckner and doctors Enrico Mezzacappa and William Beardslee conducted a study examining how children's self-regulation skills impacted their resilience in adverse situations. The study was recently published in Development and Psychopathology.

"The findings are particularly important because self-regulation skills can be taught and learned," Bucker says. "When a teacher helps a child pay attention in class or a coach counsels a kid who throws the bat after striking out, those adults are teaching self-regulatory skills. This is something that many parents and educators do already, but a heightened focus could help many children become more resilient." The strongest independent predictor of resilience (competence despite adversity) was a child's self-regulation skills, although parental monitoring also played a role.

Free Pass?

"In an effort to broaden horizons, parents have introduced a generation of young people to as many activities and opportunities as possible-soccer, fencing, dance, Mandarin," says CEO
Michael Brunner in Forbes Magazine. "The kids are then allowed to quit when they become challenged or bored and want to move on to the next thing. Of course, parents want them to have all the things we didn't enjoy when we were growing up-yes, I'm a boomer-and that explains the esteem-boosting idea that everybody plays, everybody wins, and everybody gets a trophy. But is it possible we've made life too easy for our kids?"

Farewell, Sports
About 25 million kids play competitive school sports in the U.S. It's estimated that up to 70 percent of kids drop out of organized sports by age 13. Why? The most common reason is "it stopped being fun."

Source: NYU Child Study Center and Youth Sports Quality Institute

No Winners or Losers

"Today, being competitive appears to be politically incorrect. The thinking is that if everyone can't win a blue ribbon or trophy for first place, team sports are bad and children are irreparably damaged from the hurt of the loss. There are no winners and losers today-everyone is a winner…What a negative lesson to teach a kid who is striving to be the best at something or even has a God-given talent and achieves above others."

-Katy Grimes, blogging at

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