“Everybody wins” and other lies we tell our students

When I had my son, my perspective as an educator immediately and irrevocably changed, I think for the better. Suddenly every student is somebody’s child to me, and I finally have an understanding of what that means.

I would do anything so my kid never has to cry. His sadness breaks my heart in the worst way- I would rather shoulder sadness than let him experience it. I hate letting him out into the world because I want the world to love him and treat him with the same kindness I do, but I know that they won’t. Can’t.

My baby is now 4-years-old and the other day we were playing a game – cards – and he lost. He was crushed! He wanted to win! Not only did he want to win, he expected to win. In an effort to mitigate his sadness, we said that we would play until “everybody wins” and we were all out of cards. Satisfied, he stated “everybody wins”. It felt better for a minute. He was less sad and that made me less sad.

But I thought later about what a disservice I had just done- not only had he not learned to lose, he also learned that he should expect the world to be kind and that he would win, too. The truth is that not everybody wins. I want to win a Prime Minister’s award for excellence in teaching (but I haven’t put in the effort required for that award (yet)). I want to win my next triathlon (but I am simply not a gifted athlete no matter how hard I work). It doesn’t stop
me from doing the work, though. I keep showing up for work, I keep learning and getting better. I keep training and racing even though I will never win because I enjoy the effort that much.

Children need to learn the value of effort. If “everybody wins” does it not devalue the effort required to actually win? Why spend a lifetime training to take 2/10ths of a second off a 100-meter sprint if everybody gets to stand on the podium?

Teaching our children that something is only worth the effort if we will “win” is false and hurtful. We will fail. We will spend hours in practice only to get better and for the joy of getting better an knowing more. And from time to time, we may also win. Knowing how to fail is a valuable skill going out into the world and I think we do our children and our students a disservice by not equipping them with the ability to be ok with failure. Being ok with it means getting back up after and doing it again; it’s not just a platitude about wealthy athletes and famous inventors. If we expect perfection on every effort, does it not make trying too scary? If I had to win my next race I wouldn’t even line up at the start. But I will be there because I want to better my own time.

I hope that I am brave enough to allow my son to fail and to encourage him to get back up and try again.