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The need for ability will be kept to a minimum.

May 27, 2014

You don’t have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better. – Stephanie Tolan
Since we believe that all of our children are winners, the need for athletic ability and the competitive “urge to win” will be kept to a minimum.


Is this sentence, found in a flyer regarding Field Day at North Hill Elementary in Rochester Hills, MI, indicative of the reasoning that keeps gifted programs out of most public schools?  Have our schools adopted the mantra of “Since we believe that all of our children are gifted, the need for academic ability and the competitive ‘urge to excel’ will be kept to a minimum’?  Sadly, this appears to be the case and it is harming all children.

It is understandable how this attitude harms the child who is strong in an area.  We remove her chance to shine, explore her strengths, and understand her unique abilities.  We teach him that his natural ability doesn’t need to be accompanied by hard work and that succeeding beyond artificial standards is neither expected nor rewarded.  We actually rob her of one of the best chances to build self-esteem, because self-esteem is not built from easily succeeding where others struggle, but knowing that with struggle, you are able to overcome difficulty and succeed.

What is more insidious is the harm this attitude causes to all children.

First, we provide a false view of how life works.  There are no participation trophies at work.  One doesn’t get a gold star simply for ability and little effort or effort and little ability.  The best employees receive the best jobs.  Ability and hard work are expected.  Sending a student out expecting anything less means that we have failed as an educational community.

Second, and worse, this attitude actually reinforces the utilitarian view that one’s worth is determined by their abilities and what they can offer.  When we say ‘all kids are winners’ or ‘all kids are gifted’, we actually send the message that we accept them because they are gifted and winners and that if we didn’t elevate them to that status, there would be something wrong with them.  The real way to show children that each is equally valued and worthy is to show that what makes them unique is important to us and that, while we praise success in various areas, we see the humanity present in each and value that.  Our value as human beings is not based in ability or disability, what we offer or what we take, but in our humanity.  We recognize this in the educational funding and programs for children with special needs that disability does not make them worth less as humans.  Likewise, we need to recognize that children with special abilities are not worth more as humans, so we don’t need to falsely boost children’s self-worth by claiming all to be winners or gifted.

Removing competitiveness from an event also removes the opportunity to promote good sportsmanship.  Good sportsmanship is not about not having winners and losers.  It is not about not keeping score.  Good sportsmanship is about playing by the rules, bringing your best, being courteous to other players, and being respectful of all, even when that person’s error or play cost you the game.  Not having a true game means not having true sportsmanship.

This holds true with abilities outside athletics as well.  Those with abilities in academics, arts, leadership, or other areas should also bring their best, be courteous and respectful, play by the rules, and value others.  Removing competition in these areas removes the opportunities for these children to learn valuable lessons about how to treat others.

Humanity seems to have an innate need for competition and seeing people become successful.  As we attempt to remove it from the society our children live in, our own obsession with professional athletics, celebrities, competitive reality shows, and excellence in various areas grows.  We thrive on the dreams it creates and the beauty of ability honed through training into excellence.

Banning an honors ceremony for being exclusive or not keeping score in a game doesn’t mean the participants don’t know the outcome.  Banning excellence in athletic, academic, or other ability will not promote success for all players.

I have had the privilege of talking with North Hill principal David Pontzious on several occasions.  I consider him an excellent principal and am certain he has the best interest of his students at heart.  I’ve seen extremely negative comments from people who do not know him and consider them to be wrong in fact and tenor.  He has used competition to spur his students on, including sleeping on the roof of his school after the students raised $20,000 during their ‘Hoot Scoot’.  He became a principal through ability and hard work and I don’t believe he wants to do away with either.  It’s quite possible some past behavior has suggested the need to reduce competition.

The national reaction to this letter has not really been about Mr. Pontzious.   People are upset because removing competition and stifling success above the norm has been the overall push in education and childhood and they believe that it is not reflective of adulthood, damages the innovative nature of our country, and protects children from lessons that need to be learned.  However, we must all recognize our culpability in this attitude.  Ask yourself, are you willing to support excellence in athletics, academics, and other fields even if you and your family don’t directly benefit or does your envy want to artificially level the playing field?  Are you willing to examine your beliefs to see if you value others for their humanity or for their abilities?

All kids can be winners – if we recognize their intrinsic human value and support them both when they succeed and they don’t.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE.  Together we can make a difference for all children!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2014 8:02 PM

    Well written! (To say nothing of the quote!) 🙂

    It is odd the culture is so obsessed with competitive “reality” shows, many of which are specifically hostile and nasty, where in the name of “winning” individuals are willing to do just about any nasty or vicious thing to another. Talk about philosophical whiplash! And then there’s the popularity of The Hunger Games. Sigh. I’d really like to hear from some kids why they like those books so much…it might tell us something about the world they’re living in right this minute.

    • June 2, 2014 9:25 PM

      Thanks, Stef! That means a lot to me!

      I think people know that life isn’t the ‘Harrison Bergeron’ utopia we try to impose in many sectors, particularly education and the economy. ‘Reality’ shows, while distorted, display people using their abilities in spectacular and horrific ways to earn rewards. It is a combination of wonder at what life could be if our society was unrestrained competitiveness and fear that if we don’t handicap certain individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments that we could become a society where the powerless become pawns for the powerful. Often reality shows and science fiction/fantasy explore both the eutopian and the dystopian together, with the morality of each bent to the author’s or director’s will.

  2. Otis R. Needleman permalink
    August 9, 2014 12:10 AM

    England won wars on the playing fields of Eton. General Patton said something to the extent that Americans love to win and will not tolerate a loser. Looks like David Pontzious figures let’s all be wimps together. No, thanks, not in MY America.

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