trophies.jpgThe other day at breakfast, I started to read part of an article about college students’ grade expectations. According to recent research, forty percent of students polled in a recent survey think that they should get a B just for completing the required reading; two-thirds think that if they tell the professor that they tried really hard on a project, the professor should grade the project more highly. A professor cited in the article said that his students assume the default grade is an “A,” and seem surprised when he tells them that his default grade is a C. I read some of these nuggets out loud to Husband and we chuckled at the research, which bears out what we both see all the time.

This sense of expectation causes students to come into my office insisting that I recalibrate their grades because a B+ just isn’t satisfactory, given how hard they worked on the final paper. Or students who seem surprised that their grade hovers in the realm of a low C because, while they come to class, they slouch in the back half-asleep and never open their mouths. 

Liam, sitting between us at breakfast, wanted to know what we were talking about. Husband waded in: “so let’s say you’re taking a math test with 20 questions,” he said. “You get them all right because you’re good at math but you don’t study at all. Someone else, who studies really, really hard, only gets 10 right. Should that person get the same score as you do?”

Liam smiled, shrugged, said “yeah, sure. I mean, they really tried, right?”

Husband tried again. “Well, okay, what if…someone works really, really hard on their book report, and even thought there are still lots of misspelled words and not much detail, the person put a lot of effort into the project. And someone else writes a great report, with no mistakes and lots of details, but does it without trying very hard, it’s just easy for her. Should they both get a check plus plus?” (Check plus plus is Liam’s teacher’s highest mark. It’s only third grade, after all.)

Once again, Liam nodded and said “uh huh. If the person really really tried, that’s good, isn’t it?”

By this point, I was snorting with laughter and Liam looked a little confused: I think he thought he was giving the right answer, but I knew that Husband was fishing for the “no way, effort smeffort, it’s the end result that counts” answer.

Husband tried a few more times but Liam’s answer remained steadfast: effort mattered as much as, if not more than, the actual finished product.

Having shattered his father’s expectations, Liam hopped down from the table to get ready for school. Husband stared after him.  “Brainwashed already,” he muttered.

Look, I’m not going to say that effort doesn’t count at all. Sure it does. But do you want the surgeon who is operating on your child to be someone who got an A for effort, or do you want the competitive jackass surgeon who aced every single bio and anatomy test?

The shelves in Liam’s room are already littered with “participation” trophies from T-Ball and AYSO, and I’m sure there are more to come. I guess those trophies bolster “self-esteem,” that most ephemeral and oft-quoted raison d’etre for what previous generations might have called “coddling” – but on the other hand, don’t those trophies extend the false promise that everyone is equally good at everything? (Which somehow connects to why people do steroids, but that’s an idea for another post.)

I don’t have an answer to this conundrum; I mean I don’t want to get all Great Santini and tell my kids that they’re crap unless they win, but on the other hand, I don’t want them to think that just showing up is sufficient (which I know flies in the face of what Woody Allen says at the end of “Annie Hall,” but hey: no one in that movie had kids.)

As usual when confronted with a dilemma of this sort, we must turn to the epic of our time, “The Incredibles,” in which the evil SynDrome creates a mechanical super-power so that everyone can be a superhero: “because when everyone is super, no one is super!” At the end of that movie, after SynDrome is defeated, the super-fast Dash races to…second place in the school relay (so as not to make the other kids feel bad) and his family is delighted with his second-place trophy.

Second place, as we tell our kids, can be fine – as long as you tried your best. It’s not winning or losing that matters…it’s the effort that counts, right?

Or is it?