I’ve never been a fan of giving the same award to every kid who participates in an activity. I just don’t see how that inspires them or encourages them to do better today than yesterday, and better tomorrow than today. If every kid gets the same award, regardless of how they perform, are they learning anything? Are they getting any stronger? Are they developing grit?
But a couple of recent conversations got me thinking. A short while ago I spoke with New Zealand native Rod Dixon, a four-time Olympic marathoner and bronze medal winner (among other accolades). Now 65, Rod founded KiDSMARATHON with the goal of getting young kids to love running, hopefully with a passion that matches his own. The idea is to get them to train for and to run kid-sized marathons, and to then be inspired to train for and to compete in full-length, 26.2 mile races.
Rod believes that a child’s need to be active is hardwired and that when kids are not active they struggle in all aspects of life. He says, “When I’m sitting in classrooms with kids, when I’m talking to them, I get them up every five minutes to do some exercise and then I’ve got their attention for another five minutes. If I try to talk to them for 20 minutes straight, they’re squirming.”
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He explains that when he was young a teacher took this same approach with him. “He would send me out to do something and I would run around while I did it, and then I could focus when I got back. He used exercise to recalibrate me. Up to then, my reports had words like ‘fidgets,’ ‘lacks concentration,’ ‘looks out the window,’ and ‘disturbs others’ written all over them. Today I would be medicated. But all I needed was some exercise.”
I have four kids of my own, and I couldn’t agree more. The more active they are, the better they do in everything. Including schoolwork.
Of course, lots of kids dread the thought of running, so I asked Rod how he keeps it fun for them. His immediate response: “Make it noncompetitive. Don’t tell them first, second, third. Tell them finishing is winning and winning is finishing.” To this end, everybody gets the same medal (a replica of Rod’s medal from the Olympics).
When I heard this, I almost coughed up my juice. I told Rod he was killing me. Absolutely killing me.
“I know,” he said. “But this is how it starts. And I’m only doing it this way because this is how it happened with me. I ran because I loved it. Later, when I went to high school, the competitiveness clicked in. But at a young age we just want to get kids engaged. Sure, we get a giant pool of kids and the cream is always going to rise to the top. But it has to be fun or we lose them.”
So is this really the way to go? I checked in with Angela Duckworth, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a noted researcher on grit, to see what she thinks. “I have an 11- and a 12-year-old and I am not afraid to see them work hard on things and fail,” she said. “Nor am I afraid of telling them I’m disappointed. I don’t think kids are made of glass.”
She also told me that after her daughter came home from track with a ribbon for eighth place, she said, “Weren’t there only eight kids in the race?” What she wanted her daughter to know was that it’s okay to come in last as long as you think, “I want to do better. What can I do better next time?”
Angela’s belief is that if you want to develop grit in a child, it makes sense to surround that child with other kids who are attempting difficult tasks, regardless of how well they do with those tasks. This creates a culture of grit, where kids learn from one experience, whether they succeed or fail, and they take that to their next experience. They learn to push past the negative and to focus on what they can change for the better, so ultimately they reach the finish line.
That’s also what Rod Dixon is doing—teaching kids to love something and to persevere even when it’s difficult. It’s also what we do at Spartan Race.
At the end of the day, my thinking has changed a little bit on the “every kids gets a medal” philosophy that permeates our culture. I now believe that maybe, when we’re talking about really young kids, rewarding everyone and telling them that “finishing is winning” may serve a useful purpose. After all, studies have shown that when kids are told they’re hard workers and they’re praised for that, they do better than kids who are praised just for winning, or for being smart, or whatever. So the message for kids, especially young kids, should focus on effort and hard work and sticking it out to reach a goal—i.e., on the development of grit.
No, I don’t want every game to end in a tie. That would be awful. And I definitely think there is an age cutoff where we have to start recognizing that some people finish first and other people don’t. But we also need to meet kids where they’re at in life, allowing the young ones to have lots of fun while keeping their focus on the idea that if they give it 100 percent they’re a winner. They might not be the champion, but they’re still a winner because they gave it everything they had.