In case you missed it, there is some great discussion going on around the last post, which was mainly a link to this article. The main topic of interest to myself and the commenters was this seeming paradox between our society’s push towards telling everyone they are “special,” while simultaneously minimizing competition and downplaying both strengths and weaknesses of individual people so that no one feels badly.

Last night our four-year-old son Silas went to “sports camp” at the park where they had a little track meet for the campers. Silas came home with a [plastic] gold medal around his neck that said “Winner,” and I was immediately suspicious. Did everyone get a gold medal? My husband Nathan said that Silas won the long jump. I still wasn’t sure that meant anything in particular. Maybe all the kids “won” the long jump simply because they jumped. But upon further inquiry, I learned that Silas indeed was the first-place long jumper. He also showed me a purple “participant” ribbon that he (and all the other kids) won for participating, and a third-place ribbon for another event in which he actually won third place. I was relieved that our local parks and recreation department is not afraid of competition like the coach who was interviewed in the article. (And of course I was also proud of my little guy!)

About an hour later our seven-year-old daughter Luthien came home and saw Silas’s gold medal around his neck. Her first response was an indignant, “What? Where did he get that? That’s not fair! I didn’t get one!”

I explained that Silas had won the medal in his track event. “But that makes me feel bad, Mom, because I didn’t get a medal!” she insisted. And again today, she came across Silas’s ribbons and was freshly outraged at the thought that he won awards which she did not.

Hopefully she will work through this and grow into adulthood with an ability to both celebrate the beauty and excellence and forgive the failings of herself and everyone else.

I do believe that everyone is special. Or perhaps unique, as Jodi noted in her comments on the last post. For some reason, we often equate the word “special” with the idea of being more important. But really the word means very much the same as “unique,” and it shares a root with “species.” Each of us is, in a way, a singular species. No one of us is more important than any other, or self-sufficient, but each of us does have strengths and weaknesses which can be celebrated and forgiven, respectively. Celebrated and forgiven. Not minimized, qualified, smoothed out and laden with disclaimers.



  1. First of all, belated congratulations to Silas on his accomplishment in the long jump!

    I have been thinking of this post often over the past few weeks, especially since my kids and I took part in a road race over the 4th of July weekend. In the kids’ race, medals that said, “I Finished!” were given to all participants, while individual medals, much nicer, were award to the first and second place finishers in each age group (my boys each placed first in their respective groups!).

    One path my thoughts have taken is that I was glad that participant medals were awarded because it was just as much of a personal accomplishment for my daughter to finish the race as it was for my boys to place first. Though she has a runner’s build, she inherited the mind of her mother when it comes to physical discomfort. Meaning it requires much internal wrestling to accomplish certain goals.

    So I was happy that she had some recognition for that struggle. However, now I’ve started asking another question: Does the prevalence of external rewards inhibit her ability to develop her own internal reward system? Though I ran slowly, I felt really good about accomplishing the goal I’d made–to run the four miles without stopping to walk–no medal or ribbon necessary. I’d much rather that she lose out on some recognition now if it would provide a teachable moment for helping her learn to find contentment with her own sense of a job well done.

    As you noted with Luthien’s sense of injustice, this is a process. There will be bumps and ouches along the way, and it’s really hard to let our kids hurt and just be there with them during that time. We want to fix it.

    I suspect you are a May Sarton fan, so I will end with something she noted in Journal of a Solitude when she was trying to critique the work of a 12-year-old poet whose mother had pushed her to write to Sarton: “This child really does look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think. But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn and art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!'”

    • Yes, the external vs. internal reward system is something I think about too. I read in a parenting book once that especially for young girls, who are highly socialized to need external affirmation, parents do well to give their children space and quiet while they are working on a particular project. For example, when my daughter is drawing at the table, it’s good for me to stay out of her way and let her “get lost” in the joy of creating, rather than to pop by every five minutes and peek at her work and say, “great job, Lu!”

      I also recall reading something in an Annie Dillard book about a freeing moment in her childhood when she had been outside and discovered something (an insect or some other little creature). She came running inside to tell her parents about it, to drag them along to see it too, and her mother said something like, “that’s wonderful! It sounds like something very fascinating to you! I’m really not interested in seeing that right now. But you feel free to go back out there and enjoy it!” Dillard said it was the first time she realized that she could have her own inner life, her own values and delights, and they didn’t need to be validated by other people’s agreement.

    • Oh, and I do like May Sarton’s work, and very much appreciate that quote. So true!

  2. Julia,

    I read this in my textbook today (Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith by David G. Myers & Malcolm A. Jeeves) and thought of your blog post.

    “In all the hoopla over giftedness, what most people miss is the arbitrariness of the concept. We forget that giftedness is only a concept, artificially defined by scores among the top 3 or 4 percent on some test of aptitude or intelligence. We begin to assume that giftedness really exists out there somewhere. We come to believe it’s like red hair: children either have it or they do not.

    Actually, giftedness is a decision made in the minds of those who use the word. Nothing is gifted until someone names it that. Nature has not clustered children into well-defined groups corresponding to our value-laden labels. We, not nature, decide what is a flower and what is a weed. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, a weed is but a flower that someone decides doesn’t belong in the garden.”

    It’s interesting that when I went to the author’s website, I found an article about gifted kids dating back to 1981. Funny how the concepts have been debated since then (and probably longer), but I wonder if we’ll ever come to a point where we do value everyone’s unique abilities without labeling one as better than another? Yet, I also agree that it is good to have something to strive for, and healthy competition is necessary. Great subject!


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