My Week 86: Participation Ribbons and Road Trip Conversations

Wednesday: I am up in arms. Or elbows.

I am currently what I like to call “up in arms”. This happens to me frequently, and can be triggered by small things, like the cat peeing on the rug, or larger things, like a politician trying to exploit an unfortunate situation. The former refers to Raven, who once again, in her diva-ish way, has decided that the Persian rug in my office “reminds her of the steppes of home”.

Anyway, what has triggered my current exasperation with humanity this time, you might ask? Well, somehow I started following the “Intermediate Teachers of Ontario” Facebook page, and let me tell you, there are some super-hardcore people out there. A couple of weeks ago, someone posted that she was trying to mark a Grade 5 class math test, and that the students had misunderstood the question. What should she do? she wondered. The response was outrageous. “Give them zero!” suggested a colleague. “If they can’t read properly, they don’t deserve any marks!” “Would you want a doctor who had misunderstood a question on his doctor exam?!” exclaimed another. I was sorely tempted to point out that the “doctor exam” was actually called the MCAT, and that the teacher who had posted the query might instead examine the question itself, which seemed to me to be rather ambiguous and poorly worded in the first place, but I learned a long time ago not to get involved in internet battles, since most people will take advantage of their relative anonymity and just call you a nasty name.

But this week, I’m REALLY pissed off. Someone posted a video, with the tagline “I’m a teacher and a coach. What are your thoughts about this?”, about a two-bit football player who was pontificating about Participation Ribbons. In case you’re not sure, Participation Ribbons are what we give to children for PARTICIPATING in something, hence the name. And if you don’t think children deserve Participation Ribbons, you should probably stop reading right now. Or keep reading—maybe I’ll change your mind. Anyway, this guy was telling a story about how he HATES Participation Ribbons and illustrated it thusly: His five-year-old daughter was participating in her very first school track and field day, and she was in a footrace against other small children. He related that she was winning the race, but as the kids came close to the finish line, she began to lag and lose speed. She ended up in fifth place. Not first. Not second. Not EVEN third. So instead of a “legit” ribbon, she got a Participation Ribbon. He decided that she didn’t deserve the ribbon, since she hadn’t actually won anything, so he TOOK THE RIBBON AWAY FROM HIS FIVE-YEAR-OLD AND GAVE IT BACK TO THE ORGANIZERS. And while I really want to call him a tremendous douchebag, I won’t. What I WILL say is that this is the most heinous example of parenting that I’ve ever heard of. Publicly instilling a sense of shame in your child for not winning a footrace makes no logical sense. Like she’s EVER going to want to compete in anything ever again, knowing that if she doesn’t come in top 3, Daddy will make sure she’s humiliated. His argument of course, is that this generation of kids is incredibly self-entitled because they get medals for everything whether they win or not. Here, then, for your reading pleasure, are my counter-arguments.

1) There have ALWAYS been participation ribbons. I got them when I was a kid, and so did everyone else before me, and it didn’t do us any harm—in fact, it was the opposite. 44 years ago, I was in something called the “Skating Races”. This was an event where every child in the school system went to this big-ass arena, and we raced against each other wearing ice-skates in our different age categories (remember—this is Canada. Everyone knows how to skate. Actually, that’s a lie, but back then, no one asked you if you WANTED to participate—you were just expected to). I was absolutely terrified. I wasn’t a great skater, and the thought of having to compete in front of hundreds of spectators made me shake as we lined up, all of us 6 year-olds. The gun went off. I skated the fastest that I could, but I came in almost last. You know what I got? A Participation Ribbon. And I was PROUD. I kept that thing for years as a reminder that I had conquered my fear, made it to the end of the race, and hadn’t fallen down. It didn’t make me self-entitled and I didn’t feel the world owed me anything. What it DID do was give me the confidence to keep skating. The next year, I joined a Ringette team, and became a really good skater. So never assume that you know what goes through a 6 year-old’s head when they lose a race. I was lucky that my parents weren’t like that football player. Holy sh*t, can you imagine if my dad had made me give that ribbon back in front of everyone because I didn’t win?

As for my own daughter, she took martial arts for years. Her room is full of trophies, some first, second, or third place, some just for participation. It didn’t matter to us—the message we instilled in her over and over was that she was competing against herself, and if she beat her personal best, or put in her best performance, that was all that counted in the long run. I never wanted her to feel hard-done-by ie: “I can’t believe you didn’t get first! That’s so unfair!” I’ve heard that from other parents, and I get that they’re trying to soothe a sore ego, but all that does it create a victim mentality. It doesn’t build resilience in kids, and that’s what they need to survive in an increasingly complex world.

2) The backlash against Participation Ribbons is based on a competition-model, which is way more unhealthy. Expecting your child to win, and making them feel lousy when they don’t is damaging to both them and a democratic society. What ever happened to “focus on the journey, not the destination”?  You don’t want kids to feel self-entitled? Stop giving them the message that the endgame is all that matters.

3) Are kids today really more self-entitled than any other generation? I keep hearing this from adults and it concerns me. The other day, I heard someone famous say, “Children now love luxury. They have bad manners and contempt for authority. They show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Actually, I didn’t HEAR him say that—I read it, because it was Socrates, and he’s been dead since like 399 BCE. Let me tell you, from my personal experience, that teenagers today are really no different than they’ve ever been. I was a high school teacher for almost 25 years and the kids I taught two years ago are essentially the same as the ones I taught in the early 90s. You know what changed? The technology. Instead of passing notes in class, they text. Instead of tying up the landline for hours like we did, they’re on Skype. Are kids today more uncaring than they used to be, more dangerous? According to Statistics Canada, youth crime has seen a continuing downward trend; in 2014, Youth Crime was down 40% compared to 1994. The fact is, there will always be troubled youth, and there will always be those teenagers who do mission work, who fundraise, who work towards making the world a better place. And there will always be self-entitled kids, but it’s not because of Participation Ribbons–it’s because of sh*tty parenting. Stop telling your kids that the world owes them something, and start telling them the opposite, that they owe the WORLD something. You’ll be amazed at how they respond.

4) There seems to be a lot more public “youth-shaming” than ever before. In response to the post on this Facebook page about Participation Ribbons, another so-called educator said the following: “Couldn’t agree more!! I just finished teaching an after school credit course to grade 8s and these kids think they can hand in crap work or not even study and pass the exam to get a credit! Errrr!” Crap work?  Maybe it wasn’t good work—in fact, it very well might not have been, because I know from personal experience that 13 year-olds are notoriously difficult to motivate for very complicated and varied reasons, and I’m glad. The last thing we need is another generation of people who sit and do whatever they’re told without challenging it. If we really want a world without constant war, then we need our children to be critical thinkers instead of just blindly following what our so-called leaders tell us (see Donald Trump for proof of this scary phenomenon). And calling their work “crap” in a public forum is completely inappropriate, and says more about the self-entitlement of adults to bash the younger generation than it does about kids and their attitudes. (It also says that if you don’t like 13 year-olds, maybe you should find another job.) But it’s become incredibly easy to teen-bash, just as it’s become easy to bash anyone on the internet. As adults, we need to role-model better behaviour. Just look at the comments section of any on-line article to see how “mature” adults are these days. All you need is an internet moniker and wi-fi, and you can say whatever the hell you want with impunity. We get upset when kids cyber-bully, but adults do it so much better.

Bottom line: a shiny piece of satin with the word “Participation” on it won’t make or break modern society. The way we treat our children will. So the next time little Jimmy or Susie comes running up waving a ribbon with a big smile on his or her face, just smile back and say, “Wow. I’m proud of how hard you tried.”


Saturday: Conversations on the road with Ken

Ken (crushes waterbottle completely, making horrific sound): Ahhhh.
Me: You know when you do that, it makes it almost impossible for the recycling company to get the label off? Now that bottle can’t be recycled.
Ken: Oh, don’t worry—they burn the labels off. It can still be recycled.
Me: OK. You know when you do that, the noise makes me insane?
Ken: Oh. But I like doing it.
Me: If you crush another bottle in front of me, I’ll slap you with it.
Ken: Sigh.

Me: Hey, look—a garage sale! Pull over.
Ken: OK.
Me: Look at that antique settee. It’s only $25! Do you have any cash?
Ken: It’s falling apart! What are you going to do with it?
Me: It’s my new summer project. I can fix it.
Ken: Will it end up on the porch like all your other “summer projects”?
Me: No! I promise. Put it in the truck. It’s going to be awesome.
Ken: Sigh.

Ken: What kind of plants are in that field over there, do you think?
Me: Whenever we see plants like that, you tell me it’s mustard.
Ken: Oh right. It’s probably mustard.
Me: Then again, whenever I see an owl on a powerline, you tell me it’s a hawk. I don’t know if I can trust you on this mustard thing anymore.
Ken: It looks like mustard.
Me: Sure. Right. Whatever you say, Hawk-man.
Ken: Sigh.



13 thoughts on “My Week 86: Participation Ribbons and Road Trip Conversations

  1. Jane says:

    Thank you for this post. I have been ambivalent about paritipation ribbons until I saw how happy my girls were when I ffound theirs from swimming two years ago. I also don’t think ribbons have anything to do with entitlement. It’s a learned behavior. I completely agree with you, it is more a reflection of poor parenting than anything else. Parents with entitled children need to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves where their children learned it from. It wasn’t from their participation ribbon, that’s for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When we had “Field Day” at my school I had fun seeing how many participation ribbons I could collect. And later those ribbons would remind me of things I’d participated in that day, and just how much fun it was getting to spend an entire school day playing.
    They said a lot more than just “You participated” but that message mattered too.
    Every generation has people with a “The kids are terrible” attitude but the internet has made it all too easy to magnify and echo that. Fortunately it’s made it just as easy for counter-arguments like yours to be heard.
    And I have to wonder about Ken’s plant identification abilities. Right now seems to be the season for fresh mustard greens to be available in all the stores which means all mustard plants in the field have probably been cut down.


    • I know, right? Those ribbons meant a lot to so many kids, who kept them for years. I hate that it’s so easy for people to bash our young ones–we currently have a crop of summer students at my workplace and they are SO hardworking. As for Ken, he just loves mustard. If it’s yellow, that’s what it is. No doubts in his mind.


  3. When we had “Field Day” at my school I had fun sometimes seeing how many participation ribbons I could collect. Later I’d also look back at them and remember how much fun I’d had getting to spend an entire school day playing outside.
    The ribbons said a lot more than “You participated” but that message mattered too.
    Every generation has people with a lousy attitude about “these kids today” but the internet has made it too easy to echo and magnify that attitude.
    Fortunately it also makes it easy for reasonable counter-arguments like yours to be heard, even if you’re wise enough not to get into comment matches with people who need to focus on their personal issues.
    Also now seems to be the time when fresh mustard greens are available in stores which means any mustard plants in the field have likely been cut down.
    Add that to the reasons Ken’s plant identification skills are suspect.


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  5. I’m afraid that father you mentioned sounds like a prime idiot. Presumably he also thinks that someone should go around all the ex-soldiers of the world taking away their campaign medals since they only got them for taking part.


    • Excellent observation. In the adult world, we’re often given praise for our participation in a team effort. Can you imagine the manager’s dad storming in and telling the CEO that she didn’t deserve it? Some parents, man.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Helen says:

    Absolutely magnificently put! So well written. Thank you for an amazing post. My husband and I feel this way instinctively with our 8 year old, and always remind her that when she plays competitive sports like judo and tennis, we are always so proud of that the fact she tries her very hardest and enjoys the experience, and that the wining/losing is irrelevant to us. My husband and I are extremely uncompetitive, both running our own successful businesses, very content people not constantly looking over our shoulders comparing ourselves with others. Like you said, we encourage her to compete against herself, and not feel as though she is a failure, or feel ashamed, if she loses a tennis match for example. We play a lot of board games at home, and we are all equally happy losing or winning, and just enjoy the fabulous banter and fun of the game. When I was a child, I hated playing board games with my ultra aggressive competitive siblings, and it took me a long time to learn to enjoy games again, with my gentle and kind husband and daughter. I think the reason I am so uncompetitive stems from my childhood growing up in a ruthless, dog eat dog environment. Have printed this out to show to a few of my friends who feel the same way. Love the Socrates quote! Thanks again for your wonderful writing. Always enjoy your musings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the wonderful feedback. It’s great to hear from people who are on the same page when it comes to childraising, and it sounds like you and your husband are excellent parents with a daughter who will be an equally happy and successful adult.


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