Karen Jones recalls gym classes in which two team captains, usually the best athletes in the class, got to pick their players.

She was always a “first-round pick” because she was good at team sports, but she would wince for the few remaining classmates who were always picked last.

Today, schools and parents try to avoid hurtful situations such as this. But Jones, a teacher in Minnesota’s public-school system, thinks things have gone too far the other way. Parents, she says, are protecting their kids too much from the normal pains of growing up.

Jones cites the example of one mom in her school whose fourth-grade son was told he would never make the C team by a hockey teammate. Rather than teach him how to deal with the disparaging remark, the mother has instead called the school every year to request that her son not be in the same classroom as the taunting kid.

“It’s the parents who come in fighting with you every time something happens to their ‘little darling,’ or when you try to discipline a kid for bad behavior,” she says. “I think they feel they’re helping their kids.” But are they?

According to a CNN report filed this summer, the idea that “protecting kids from rejection is crucial to safeguarding their self-esteem” has gained momentum in recent years.

In many youth sports programs, scorekeeping has been eliminated and everyone gets a “participation trophy.” Similarly, CNN reported, parents and teachers are monitoring birthday-party invitations in the classroom — the notion being that kids who don’t get invited to parties will suffer debilitating emotional wounds that will scar them for a lifetime.

If you talk to teachers, says psychologist, author and Register columnist Ray Guarendi, many will tell you that they’re not allowed to give bad grades. They give everyone “good job” stickers, hand out perfect-attendance awards even to kids who missed several days of school and allow kids to re-take tests on which they didn’t do well.

“What a gig, huh? I think it’s an utterly ridiculous by-product of the whole self-esteem movement that now dominates our culture that nobody’s a winner and nobody’s a loser,” says Guarendi. “The irony is the research has shown that it has not created self-esteem. It has created a false sense of self-absorption and self-entitlement. Sadly, more people are concerned about self-esteem than virtue.”

Never mind the obvious oversight in that priority arrangement. “If you have virtue,” says Guarendi, “self-esteem will follow.”

Guarendi maintains that kids who are raised in an environment of unconditional love, discipline and morality, with a healthy sense of who they are, will naturally have self-esteem. It’s not something you instill in them. Furthermore, he says, our perception of ourselves needs to be accurate — that’s where holiness is.

“It’s not holy to see yourself as more skilled or better than you are. That’s delusional,” he says. “Having an ability to run fast, be smart or be a great figure skater is a nice piece of earthy icing on the cake, but it’s not the core of your relationship with God.”

Susie Lloyd, a Catholic author and home-schooling mother of six in Whitehall, Pa., believes in taking the middle road in the debate over whether to shield kids from or leave them open to negative experiences.

“I agree that giving trophies to every kid is ridiculous. You can give a kid a trophy but he’ll still feel like a failure if he lost,” she says. “It’s good for a kid to know that he’s good at some things and not good at others, that sometimes he’ll win and sometimes he’ll lose. Parents should help kids find their true talents rather than reward them for something they’re not good at.”

Lloyd says kids, on the other hand, should be taught to be sensitive to others’ feelings and be as inclusive as they can. If they are handing out party invitations in school, they should invite the whole class — or keep it small, private and out of the classroom.

“It’s nasty to expect kids to cope with a lot of rejection,” says Lloyd. “Some rejection is okay, but I wouldn’t put my kids through the constant tearing down that I experienced in middle school. I was totally trapped and helpless. If my kids were stuck with the same nasty kids every day, I would change schools.”

Mark and Nancy Sibenaller try to teach their three boys, ages 11, 9 and 6, the value of working toward a goal — not only in sports, but in life.

“Definitely, when you have a bunch of little kids that meet every week for seven weeks to play a sport, they deserve some sort of recognition,” says Nancy. “If it means giving them a ribbon, then great. At the same time, when they turn 11 or 12, they have to learn that, just because they’re doing something, it doesn’t mean they automatically get a reward. They’re much more appreciative of things they have to work and save for, than when it’s handed to them.”

The Lonsdale, Minn., couple say they’ve seen the ugly side of sports, and the parents who can be more competitive than the kids, pushing a “win, win, win” attitude.

They try to stress to their kids the values of good sportsmanship, working hard and being a good team member, but not everyone shares those values, notes Nancy.

Boys, in general, naturally have a competitive spirit. That’s what makes up their masculinity.

So says Jason Garrett, national director of ConQuest North America, a network of Catholic clubs and camps that teach boys self-discipline and build their confidence. The competitive opportunity is the motivator, he says, but the trend in society lately is to move boys away from or minimize competition. Rather, society should help them form their conscience properly — and for the right reason.

“We emphasize that winning is important and we relate it to the game of life,” Garrett explains. “If you’re not striving to win in the game of life and understand there are consequences to losing, that can impact your life.”
“Even more, we emphasize the manner in which you win or lose,” adds Garrett. “You give your best effort, play with teamwork and play with charity. Then, whether you win or lose, you do so with virtue.”

Garrett says ConQuest focuses on team awards rather than individual recognition for boys 5 through 9 because, at that age, they’re very focused on themselves. The goal is to form them in virtue.

At the age of adolescence, the program begins to recognize individuals — but gives its most prized awards for the greatest amount of virtue shown.

“In that way, you’re recognizing the person and not the particular talent, the being versus the doing,” he says. “It’s who they are, not so much what they’re doing and how they do it.”

ConQuest primarily focuses on the virtues of respect, self discipline and obedience, but the boys also strive for courage, sportsmanship, responsibility and honesty, among others.

Garrett directs people to the image of St. George or St. Michael. “You see a competitive nature aimed at the will of God,” he says. “St. Paul also says, ‘Run as if to win.’ It’s that same kind of spirit. We’re forming ourselves in a human way, to succeed in the battles that come.”

Barb Ernster writes

from Fridley, Minnesota.