ASK JUNE: The Prize Dilemma

Dear June,

I recently attended two events, one involving my niece and one involving a colleague’s spouse.

The first event was a local gymnastics meet for middle schoolers—just an informal, rec center thing. In my niece’s cohort, there were seven kids competing. My niece, who had won First Place at the previous meet, was very excited and did what I thought was a very nice routine. Anyway, it turned out that there were five awards, for First through Fifth Place, which were announced in reverse order à la Miss America Pageant, with many pauses and lots of drama. By the time they got to First Place my niece was practically jumping up and down with anticipation. When another girl won I could see her blushing and trying to hold back tears. The presenter then announced a sixth award, for a specific apparatus—and my niece didn’t get that one, either. So the result was that she in effect was told that she was the worst person competing.  

By the time they got to First Place my niece was practically jumping up and down with anticipation. When another girl won I could see her blushing and trying to hold back tears. The presenter then announced a sixth award, for a specific apparatus—and my niece didn’t get that one, either. So the result was that she in effect was told that she was the worst person competing.

My brother is having trouble convincing her that she isn’t terrible and that gymnastics can still be fun. And he is really angry,

The second event I attended was quite different: a pre-degree awards ceremony for M.F.A. visual artists at a prestigious art school. In this case, there were 15 portfolios presented, which were supposed to distill the best of at least two years’ work. I know from what my colleague said that the candidates work really hard for months to put their portfolios together and that getting an award for one’s portfolio is very helpful for future employment and commissions and so on. And another thing: lots of different styles and media were represented, so the whole competition seemed to me like apples and oranges, although I am a writer so I am not quite sure how standards are set.

Anyway, there were three awards and two honorable mentions, and then the head of the program said that she wanted to let people know about five other people who were very high in the final ranking. Unlike my niece, my colleague’s wife did well (Second Place), so I didn’t have the same personal stake in the result but it still seemed unnecessary for there to be a public announcement basically saying that five of the students’ portfolios were in the bottom third.

This is not just a theoretical question for me. I teach creative writing and we do give out awards at the end of the year to a bunch of aspiring writers who are, if anything, more fragile than most middle-school athletes.

What do you think? Do you approve of the way the gymnastics meet and/or the portfolio awards were handled? This is not just a theoretical question for me. I teach creative writing and we do give out awards at the end of the year to a bunch of aspiring writers who are, if anything, more fragile than most middle-school athletes. And as for the gymnasts, I could use a little help deciding what to say to restore my niece’s self-confidence and prevent my brother from saying or doing something intemperate if this happens again.

Upset Teacher in an Undisclosed Town


Dear UpUn,

Let’s start with the middle-schoolers. I disapprove.

One of my kids’ second-grade teachers had a rule about birthday parties: you could invite one or two kids or the whole class, but nothing in between. This way the children who weren’t invited might be disappointed at not being the birthday kid’s special friend but were much less likely to feel like pariahs. Even though your gymnasts are a little older, and were engaging in what was explicitly a skills competition, they are still very young and competing at an instructional, informal level. In such cases, there is no reason at all to set up an awards ceremony that may discourage kids from continuing with the sport and is almost guaranteed to cause needless disappointment and self-doubt. (Note: I am not talking about high-level, O.D.P. sports and the like. A lot of that seems crazy, too, but it would take inside knowledge for me to weigh in on the risks and benefits.)

Perhaps the turnout for your niece’s group was much lower than expected, and nobody anticipated that one little girl would effectively get the booby prize. But you’d think the responsible adults would have some sense and flexibility in a situation like that. For Pete’s sake, when you see that there are only seven kids competing, limit the awards to no more than three, or else (depending on how many certificates and dollar-store medals you have kicking around in your trunk) just give everybody an award, and maybe single out one or two girls for general excellence or stellar performance on the unequal bars. There are any number of ways to encourage the kids who excel without singling out the ones who do badly—or, in this case, who may have also done just fine in a subjective competition among a small group of children.

I realize that I am laying myself open to criticism as a fuzzy-headed, deep- and/ or nanny-state sympathizing bleeding heart who turns future rugged entrepreneurs into those dreaded “special snowflakes” of Internet rant fame, thereby accelerating the erosion of America’s greatness.

Those gymnasts are snowflakes. They are little kids, little individuals who need to build a reserve of self-confidence and self-esteem they can draw on in the future when they face serious challenges and unavoidable stumbling blocks. It’s true that setbacks, including failure and even humiliation, can build character. But they can also warp it. We are talking about youth sports here, not Marine boot camp.

But you know what? Those gymnasts are snowflakes. They are little kids, little individuals who need to build a reserve of self-confidence and self-esteem they can draw on in the future when they face serious challenges and unavoidable stumbling blocks. It’s true that setbacks, including failure and even humiliation, can build character. But they can also warp it. We are talking about youth sports here, not Marine boot camp. Manufacturing ways of embarrassing or disappointing children just isn’t worth the risk to their egos—or to their growing bodies, if they lose interest in sports.

Some other things we are not talking about here are The Bachelor, American Idol, or Chopped. There are no Nielson ratings to worry about, no advertisers who require spectacle and suspense. The gymnasts’ drawn out, reverse-order awards ceremony strikes me as silly, with just a touch of sadism—like teasing a dog with food (and perhaps posting a video of the dog’s adorable anxiety all over social media). Come to think of it, the dog tease actually makes more sense than the awards ceremony, since canine obedience does need to be reinforced, and since in most cases Old Blue eventually gets to eat the Pupperoni you’ve been making him balance on his snout for a doggie eternity. There’s no reason for the gymnastics award presenters to drag out the suspense, especially when a kid has reason to hope that she will come in first, not last!

As to how to restore your niece’s self-confidence, I suggest playing down the situation. It’s probably best not to mention the matter at all. Instead, talk to her about other areas where she excels, or have her do some gymnastics with you or for you and praise her—but focus on the fun part. If she raises the subject, I would just say that you thought she did great, and that is really weird the way one day your performance can get you first prize and the next time no prize. Try to be more so it-goes than we-wuz-robbed.

I would take a similar low-key tone with your brother. Above all, try to keep him from displaying any anger or disappointment around his daughter, which would only reinforce the very stupid notion that this one award, or any award, is what youth athletics is about. I wouldn’t actively discourage him from talking to the coach, or whoever runs these competitions if he wants to. People are always making life miserable for the many self-sacrificing coaches and officials in youth sports by challenging and second-guessing them, but in this case I think it might benefit the kids and the program if, without getting overwrought, your brother speaks to one of them and recommends against giving out almost, but not quite, as many prizes as there are contestants.

Just make sure he does so before, not during, an actual event, lest violence ensue. Believe me, this happens in youth sports. I still bear psychic scars from a travel soccer tournament held, appropriately, in Manassas, Virginia.

The portfolio awards are a bit different in that the contestants are adults who belong, or aspire to belong, to a profession where survival can depend on being able to learn from criticism and rebound from all manner of rejection.

True enough: but this 3-2-5-5-tier division is not criticism. It’s pure ranking, which provides the artists with no specifics, rationales, or advice for going forward. Besides, even if the rankings are completely accurate (whatever that means when evaluating student art), they are useless as a measure of absolute merit, since the pool of students as a whole could be terrific or terrible. And they are next-to-useless even as a measure of relative merit since there is no way to assess the gaps between any two individuals or subsets.

Okay, but what about the need for artists (and writers) to toughen themselves, to learn to accept rejection? If you are a non-celebrity in the arts or letters, you have to be thick-skinned and resilient. It can be a jungle out there or—worse—a lonely wasteland. But a portfolio awards ceremony may be one of the dumbest places to try to teach an artist grit and resilience. School should be an environment where artists and writers feel safe—not from criticism or even necessarily grading but from unexplained public pigeonholing.

School should be an environment where artists and writers feel safe—not from criticism or even necessarily grading but from unexplained public pigeonholing.

I agree with you about apples and oranges. Given the variety of artistic expression, and the amount of subjectivity in responses to art, I don’t see much sense in treating art like some kind of contest. If tradition or, for reasons that elude me, pedagogy requires that awards be given at an art school, I would keep the comparisons to a minimum for that reason alone. Three awards, fine. Honorable mentions, maybe, since they may have some resumé value. But why publicly announce the five next-best portfolios? It seems to me that, whatever benefit students might derive from being publicly praised as among the middle third is far outweighed by the effect on the bottom third. As with the little gymnasts, awards work best for everybody when they single out a few people for praise as opposed to publicly proclaiming everybody’s relative status. If you have to teach realism to certain students, there are better places, like conferences, individual critiques, and career counseling.

When you give out your own awards, I would keep your second tier private. Write them letters, if you like. Or think up specific awards for writers who are especially strong in certain areas: this would not only be encouraging, but also informative. But don’t publicly rank anybody as in or near the bottom without good reason, especially when they are already performing the brave and generous act of creative writing.

LA WALLY SAYS:
With the gymnasts, just tell the girl that that’s how it is. You win sometimes, and you lose sometimes, but don’t let it stop you from having fun. As for the portfolios: why go into that kind of detail about which artists you think are best and worst? You don’t make the art any better, and you will hurt people.


ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.

 

La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.

 

Image credit: Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

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