How Adults are Stealing Ambition From Kids

April 5, 2013 — 50 Comments


I visited the home of a friend of mine just after he’d coached another season of little league baseball. His son, Jacob, plays first base on the team. He is ten years old. As we were talking, my friend suggested to his son that he take me up to his room to show me the trophy he’d just won. Upon walking into his room, I was stunned. The room was filled with trophies and ribbons. It reminded me of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York…only bigger. (OK—I admit, I’m exaggerating a bit). But, awards were everywhere. When I asked Jacob how many championships he had won—he looked blankly at the wall and said, “None.”

I soon discovered, every one of his awards was simply for playing on a team.

I realize this experience may not sound new to you. We are raising a generation of kids who are used to receiving recognition for participating. It started back in the 1980s, when moms and dads were determined to boost their kids’ self-esteem and encourage participation over conquest. I understand that; I am one of those parents. But I believe this works when a child is five; not when they’re ten or eleven. It has backfired, and we’re now reaping the consequences of this decision. I know a kid who gave the trophy back to his dad after the ceremony. He said, “This doesn’t mean anything.” These kids are not stupid. But I wonder if we are.

Reflect for a moment on the long-term impact of this kind of world. When a child gets to swing at a ball until he hits it (there are no strike outs), when coaches decide not to keep score (there are no losers), and when everyone gets an equal award in the end (we are all equal), it can begin to de-motivate kids, especially boys. It takes the steam out of their engine. They begin to think: Why try? I’m going get the same reward whether I put out any effort or not. And it’s easier…put out no effort.

This is not just about sports either. Adults so wanted these kids to feel special, we began to take away the possibility of failing a class. Students always seem to find a way to negotiate a grade or do some extra credit work to make up for failing to do what they’d been asked to do. Many parents have removed the possibility of failing at home; kids still get money or perks even if they failed to share the responsibilities around the house. As a result, college staff and faculty are reporting the comments that incoming students are making to them:

  • Why didn’t I get an A? I showed up to class every day.
  • You’re guaranteeing me a job once I graduate, right?
  • OK…so I flunked the test. What do I need to do to get the grade I want?
  • How come my suite mate got a scholarship and I didn’t?
  • If my parents pay the tuition, I deserve the grades I want.
  • I think the government’s job is to make sure I get a job and a house.
  • You can’t criticize me. I tried.

By wanting our children and students to be happy, we may have created the most depressed population of kids in recent history. By leading them in this way, we have all but removed ambition in them. We have most certainly diminished it. Below is the reason why this philosophy has holes in it:

As their possibility of failure goes down, so does their value of success.

Think about it. If I grow up in a world where almost everything has been given to me, or made easy—I start feeling entitled to it. In fact, I stop trying hard, because I know, somehow, an adult will insure I get what I need or want.

One of the most valuable commodities we can cultivate in this emerging generation of kids is ambition. By this I don’t mean selfish ambition, or some self-absorbed preoccupation. (Narcissism may or may not motivate a kid to try.) I am speaking of the internal drive to achieve and to grow. The motivation to excel in an area. Further, it is a motivation that comes from serving or adding value to others.

I feel most valuable when I add value to other people.

Self-esteem is not something we can conjure up with a few affirming statements, or by giving them a ribbon just because they’re pretty or showed up on time. It comes from them knowing who they are intrinsically, and using their gifts to contribute to a cause greater than them. I firmly believe ambition is part of the equation. Ambition builds self-esteem and vice versa. When I feel good about myself I tend to try harder. And when I try harder, I tend to feel better about myself.

So What Do We Do?

Here are some ideas for cultivating ambition in kids:

1. Let them fail, but when they do, interpret the failure with them.

Don’t rescue them, but if they fall or fail, talk it over. Show them it’s not the end of the world and is not a reflection on their identity. It is a chance to try again.

2. Tell them stories about your failures.

My kids love to hear me talk about my past flops, failure and fumbles. As we laugh together, they think: Wow, if you did that and still made it…there’s hope for me.

3. Help them put their finger on something they really want to achieve.

Goals are important. They are targets to shoot for, and either hit or miss. Once you identify a goal, help them create a plan to reach it.

4. Establish rewards that only come as they work hard and make progress.

Separate the idea of merely “showing up” from putting out effort. Big difference. Set a reward that they can get only if they really excel.

5. Discuss your ambitions and how you felt when you accomplished them.

Once again, it’s the power of stories. Talk about an ambition you had years ago, and how you felt when you pursued it; how rewarding it was inside to earn it.

6. Communicate your love and belief in them, regardless of what happens.

Love should not be a reward for performing. Caring adults must demonstrate belief regardless of their accomplishments. This is a solid foundation for ambition.

  • My kids and stepkids participated in 4H programs for all of their growing up years. Eventually as they got older (the early teens, etc.) they realized that EVERYONE got a ribbon for participating. They began to call them their, “Thank You For Being A Loser” ribbons and we joked about how even then they knew that the only ones whose ribbons counted for anything were the ones whose projects were selected as Grand Champions or something similar. We are creating a generation of future adults and future leaders who are very likely to back out of their responsibilities when it comes to leadership of the world. Why should they when they know that it doesn’t really matter if everyone is a winner??? (Take out the second “N” and insert an “H” after the “W” and that might be closer to the truth!)

    • Thanks for sharing, Martha. I’m happy to hear you facilitated healthy and honest conversations with your own children to bring to light this issue.

    • asdries

      Hi Martha- That’s too bad about the 4-H program in your state. In MD 4-H we don’t hand out participation ribbons to anyone but those in the clover program (ages 5 to 7). However, they do use the Danish rating system to provide feedback on the quality of the work done by the 4-Her. A blue ribbon means high quality, red is good and white is just okay. Placement ribbons are then handed out and are given only to those who received a blue rating. It’s a good system as it provides feedback to everyone.

  • Amy

    I’m a teacher (12 years+) and I agree with most of this, but I do have an problem with the idea that children should be allowed to “fail” in school. First of all, failure in any academic sense doesn’t belong in elementary school; if children are not learning to read, write, or do math, they need extra help and support to master these skills in their most formative years. Young children who are failing in elementary school either have a learning disability that needs to be addressed OR they simply cannot function in the “traditional” classroom that expects children to quietly and passively sit still and fill out worksheets…and without playtime, PE, Art, Music, or recess, in many cases.

    I believe that all young children, without exception, have a natural voracity to learn and discover that is actually being destroyed by our school system. Grades are one of the problems, along with teaching to standardized tests. Instead of encouraging children’s intrinsic desire to learn, we use false carrots and sticks measures to get them to “learn” what we deem important. It slowly diminishes their joy in learning until they either mentally check out of school or become almost obsessed only learning things will be on “the test”. After teaching in both progressive and traditional settings, I will tell you that children do not need to be bribed or coerced into learning; if they are allowed ample opportunities to make meaningful decisions about their own learning from an early age, and are treated as human beings rather than cogs in the system, they will develop into self-motivated, enthusiastic students who enjoy tackling a challenge.

    • Children need to know when they are not learning. It is up to the teacher to figure out why. Not all have disabilities. Some are just lazy and that must be included in researching the problem. Some have environmental problems which cannot be controlled and we must figure out how to fix that as well. Then there some situations no one can fix and we need to accept that as well.

      • Amy

        In my 12+ years of teaching elementary school, I have NEVER met a child who is not learning because he or she is “lazy”. When a child looks like he or she is not putting forth effort, in my experience it has always been because of a) a learning issue/disability b) a learning style that is not compatible with the “traditional” school model c) as you mention, environmental factors that lead to emotional problems.

        • Thanks for sharing, Amy. There are environmental factors that influence a child’s performance and ambition in the classroom. We need teachers like you to advocate for them and meet the needs not being met outside of school. I agree with you that it is a disservice to our students if we remain passive and let this environment rule them. Helping students interpret failure, however, can result in great lessons and even prevent future failure.

        • Kids who have parents that don’t care become apathetic and lazy. Just because there is an outside cause (“environment”) doesn’t mean the child hasn’t become lazy. Kids who become lazy are “fixable” when you connect with the kid and show that YOU care, because you may never get the parents to care. That is the difference between a teacher and a hero.

        • Guest

          Sorry, but I know a child who is being taught one on one in a non-traditional school setting and he would rather have an F than do his work. He has stated many times, “Just give me an F.” He doesn’t want to do it. He is plenty capable, he just does not want to do it. He wants to be home playing his iPad or his Nintendo DS or watching TV or whatever. He is obviously not being failed by the system, since he is not in the system. He is just stubborn and at times lazy (many times). So, I have to disagree that it is never the child being lazy.

          • Suzannah Brbich

            Is it really “his” work though? Or does he just not see the point in doing something he’s not interested in? I, personally, don’t like doing anything I don’t see the point of. I think a lot of children in or out of school have so many teacher/parent/adult led activity they have a hard time figuring out what it is they actually want to do and are interested in and when they find it they learn at a much faster rate than if you force something in a way that they aren’t interested in. If a child were interested in trucks and car rallies and you wanted to help them learn to read and write then you wouldn’t force them to read books on horses or unicorns etc and make them write about horse riding lessons. That would be silly and counter productive. You would provide books/cds/dvds on trucks/cars etc, take said child to some roadworks or a truck company, then they would have an interesting (to them) experience to express in writing.
            All the children I know and have known have loved to learn new things, as long as its something they are interested in.

      • Embracing reality certainly hurts sometimes, but I agree that it is necessary to do as adults. Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Grant.

      • Alexcia

        I do not agree that it is up to the teachers to figure out what is wrong with the children. It is up to the parents to be more engaged with the children. For the parents to work with their children and the teachers. If there is a lack of understanding the label of the child being ADHD and having trouble learning needs to stop being a scapegoat. A lot of parents believe that the teacher should take the blame for their child lacking and being behind in school. Children do not fail or lose ambition its the parents are helping them to lose ambition. Its for the parents to instill ambition in their kids. To teach them to work hard and give their all to everything in life they do. Parents are participating less and less every year in their children’s lives and try to pass the buck onto the coaches, schools, and childcare personnel that are paid to help teach or watch. Those who help are not supposed to instill the want for success Its the parents responsibility. The child needs to know what they are being rewarded for. Not just given a certificate or participation award and not understanding that hey this is for you sticking to the program, listening, working hard, and showing up every day, week, and month on time and being ready to give whatever it is they are doing their all.

    • I don’t think the author is talking about failing an entire course. I think the author is talking about failing on a test or a paper, and then learning from that to become better. Some people put out poor effort. Some just don’t get the material. Some are, like you mentioned, not learning due to a disability. Like the previous commenter stated, it is up to the teacher to find out why and address it. I am sure it can be difficult with a lot of kids in each class, but the same was true when I was in elementary school.

      We are seeing much higher failure rates now. Kids aren’t even learning how to read, write, or do math. They aren’t learning history, or how their government is supposed to function. They aren’t learning how to get along in life, and they aren’t learning things that will help them to become successful adults. They ARE learning that it doesn’t take effort and talent to get a trophy, and they ARE learning how to NOT be responsible for their own actions. They ARE being taught that they can’t get through life on their own, without the help of someone else doing everything for them.

      Look at the young people in high school and college today. They all think that someone else is successful because they TOOK that success away from another party, rather than learning that to become successful, one must help a bunch of other people become successful. I hope we are able to change some of the mindsets that have been developed over the past 10-20 years, or we will be in bigger trouble as a society than we already are.

      • Amy

        I definitely agree with the major points of this article and I have seen many “helicopter” parents who are robbing their children of important life lessons. I believe in helping children to become independent, self-motivated, critical thinkers, but I don’t think that our current model of education supports that at all. I’m also pointing out that we need a balance between rescuing children from every possible negative outcome and adopting an “oh well, if they are failing it’s their fault” attitude, especially when we are talking about elementary aged children.

    • ^^^This^^^^ is why a LOT of people homeschool

  • Tim, this is an epidemic and I’m glad to see you mention it on your blog. There are throngs of kids being taught all they need to do is show up. I’m sorry but that’s not going to cut it in the real world.

    If we honestly look at trophies and wins, they’re saying something. They’re saying the person who won them did something of value.

    Keep sharing this message! I look forward to more great things.

  • Frances Barnes

    I have three boys and all are competitive. When they were young and played sports where the score wasn’t kept they all knew exactly who had won and by how much. It didn’t fool anyone. The other side was that it wasn’t a big deal if they had lost. They quickly moved on. Sometimes we found it was the parents who couldn’t let it go. Maybe the ribbons are to make the parents feel better not the kids.

    • This is often the case, Frances. It makes us rethink how focused we are on the child, doesn’t it?

  • This is a great post. Thanks TIm for your insight. I think that it can be hard to find that time when switch over. I like the idea of sharing about your own failures. I have been a youth pastor for 14 years and I know that I always connect with students best out of my weakness. It is important for them to see that we are not super heroes with perfect pasts.

    • Well said, Ryan. Thanks for the post!

  • I have shared this on my FB page, and I think I am going to share it on my own blog as well. I have VERY strong opinions about our failure as parents in today’s society to teach our kids the value of earning what you want, true success as a result of hard work, etc. Everything from school, to sports, to relationships— its up to us, as parents, to get our kids away from selfish, instant gratification, and entitled senses that lead only to mediocrity and ultimately failure.

  • Pingback: Sense of Entitlement | Kye S. Chung()

  • A mom in Texas

    I even see this happening in boy scouts (with older boys). Parents want their boys to be given merit badges simply for showing up to a meeting or camp out where the badge was worked on. They also want their boys to be given Eagle rank without putting in the time or work. Let’s water it all down so we can check off the boxes and make the kids “feel good”. The kids feel nothing because it doesn’t matter to them. Why would getting an award for something you didn’t have to do anything to get have any meaning? It doesn’t.

  • Pingback: Adding Value | one good thing()

  • Pingback: Hey Parent…are you stealing their ambition? | Journeying at PDAC()

  • Pingback: LATE MONDAY NIGHT | a million miles away()

  • Pingback: Unemployment and Apathy Grow Poverty | The Field Position()

  • Mrs. R

    “Think about it. If I grow up in a world where almost everything has been given to me, or made easy—I start feeling entitled to it. In fact, I stop trying hard, because I know, somehow, an adult will insure I get what I need or want.”
    Hmm, sounds like the attitude of a lot of adults in this country, only they’ve transferred their reliance on their parents to reliance on the government.

  • Pingback: Table Talk: Make Good | The Mustard Seed House()

  • bahar

    “especially boys”? really? This phrase ruined the whole article. With no grounds or reasons?

  • Pingback: What's The Word, Bird? | The Glamorous Housewife()

  • Alma

    I’m not really sure why it is assumed that boys need competition more than girls generally in our society, and I think that underestimating girls’ need to compete AND to succeed in competition is unfortunate in our society and in this article. I think that some types of competition are important but they are important for ALL children not just some or some over others.

    I work with young adults who have dropped out of high school already by the time that I work with them and the need to feel success is important to each and every one of them in various ways. This is not more potent or less potent for one of them based on their gender but is instead based much more on how much success they have personally felt in life regardless of their obstacles. What are the consequences for our society if we assume that girls or young women do not also need competition or to feel success in competition?

    The ideas listed at the end of the article for cultivating ambition are not gender-specific so why are we thinking that the way that we see children or young adults should be different based on their gender? I generally appreciate what this article tries to accomplish, but am stunned at the assumptions being made based on the gender of the young ones we work with.

  • Stephen Peele

    WOW, this is cool…

  • Inspiring Charlie

    Can photographs really inspire our kids today?

    The question is , does having a simple picture hanging on our walls as we grow up, inspire us to strive and achieve in today’s high climbing society? Can we really learn to keep our goals and hold onto that ambition, just because a photograph is there to remind us?

    The answer is, yes. visual repetition can work. Today more than ever , we tackle obesity, discrimination and recession, grabbing something positive from a picture of someone who’s conquered their goals (big or small) is most certainly inspirational on a variety of levels.

    Being active

    Getting your child to motivate themselves and stay fit and active can be easier than you think, by joining a group and getting involved , you can simulate your child’s inner active self , whilst boosting their confidence and giving them a goal.


    Having a picture of Andy Murray on your bedroom wall, can remind your child to keep going , to try and try again, help give them an unshakeable belief that they can achieve – whether it’s in their ‘makeup’ or genes – creating an inbuilt ability to feel and think the philosophy – ‘inspire and be inspired’.

    Purchase an image, framed, canvas or print and display the ambition , inspiring thoughts through imagery – when tears flow into a pillow or feet leap for delight- it will be hanging stimulating – may wish to use another word as it can be easily misconstrued – your child to remember goals and focus on what they could achieve – reach high, reach low, smash the net , run the distance and win the game.

    Visual repetition is a wonderful tool and used by many, think about it at.

    Make the move

    With obesity and malnutrition growing on all sides of the globe, activity of the body and mind is crucial, perseverance is rife and to get somewhere in this world, you simply need to have the right attitude and the right tools. Where you get them from is easier than you think, visit and inspire your child today.

  • Pingback: Podcast #16: How to Stop Stealing a Kid’s Ambition - Tim Elmore()

  • Jim

    I was involved as a basketball coach for youth and ran across a great organization that tries to do the things that you listed through sports. It’s called the Positive Coaching Alliance. While this name sounds like a “ribbons for everyone” kind of experience, it focuses on goal setting and measuring achievement through skill development in individual players. Participation in activities like this where growth is the focus and the rewards of long-term perseverance can be shown lead to adults who can apply that to their lives.

  • Jen

    I have been a believer against the grain, and whilst praise for kids ‘trying hard’ is OK, there has to be a time when they try and fail and that is OK too. Because when we grow up into an adult world life it like that, when we go for a JOB everyone doesn’t get a trophy or lolly pop. we have to build resilience into our kids as well as encouraging BIG dreams and teaching them if they really want something bad enough they will get better and learn how to WIN if they want to. My 11 yr old tried out for top soccer teams for a few years at the club, we realized they were slightly ‘rigged’ but still encouraged him to go for the school teams, he got in first year into a very competitive A soccer team for his age group, two years running he tried his heart out and won, but lost at another trial. The temptation when he got rejected the first times was for him to say ” I won’t try out again” but we got him some coaching (because he wanted it bad) and then encouraged him to go again! The lessons he learned over this time were huge and cannot be learned in theory. These are lessons that have to be felt! He now knows he can give 100% of his effort to something and sometimes win and sometimes lose…Painful as it is as parents we need to let our kids lose and still be able to live a happy life after the fact. We must resist our temptation to protect them from every hurt, every rejection and every failure, these are KEY to developing strength of character and who knows we may not always be around to swoop in and protect them. I have 5 children, 3 I have raised to adult hood. It never gets easier to watch them try and fail sometimes, but I know life is short even at its longest and we have to focus on raising kids that can confidently go try stuff without the crippling fear of failure

    • That is a great story, thanks for sharing Jen. I am with you, it can be really challenging to let your kids fail at times, but those truly are some of the most defining moments of growing up. They teach lessons that are simply unteachable through words and books.

  • caroline

    This is a great post ! It rasies a lot of questions . I agree that there are a lot of rewards given to school age children for simply adequate behaviour and accomplishments. But it so exceeds the boundaries of sports that i wonder if this article shouldn’t go a little deeper. I see teachers giving out candy and toys constantly for the most benign and nondescript accomplishments. There’s also the excessive surplus of toys and electronics that children get and the ridiculous amount of junk food — look around you at a ball game at what consumables parents are buying their kids… It ALL panders towards a lack of ambition — kids are overcompensated for doing nothing but breathing. They are given whatever they ask for. Parents don’t want to hurt their feelings or have them feel deprived of things ‘everyone else’ has. I’ve got four kids. My husband has coached teams. When they were five or six, they’d often get medals a the end of the season and it was never a medal to say ‘hey you are special’ It was always a medal to say “You worked hard as a team together, and this is to celebrate a great season and remember it when you are older”. That’s how we saw it. That’s how the kids saw it. As they’ve gotten older, the dynamics of sports has changed. More competetive. More skill. More hard work. In fact, a LOT of hard work. If they make the team, and if their team makes the championship, they win a trophy or medal. Those are the kids with ambition folks. Go to a swim meet for 10 year olds…. go to a hockey arena at 5am and see the 7 year olds practicing their drills and ….. then consider ambition and trophies and what the bigger picture is here. Is it the trophies that are the problem here? It think it goes much much deeper than that.

  • Summer

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this!!!!! As a music teacher and business owner, I have seen how some kids want praise just for putting their violin under their chin and the bow to the string (regardless of the sound) and how adults want money without having to work too much…

    • Thanks for your comment Summer! It can be easy to become complacent, especially if that’s the behavior that parents display for their children.

  • billegge

    The artical was good until I came to this line “Further, it is a motivation that comes from serving or adding value to others.” How horrible it is for the value of your life to be based on how you can serve them. How horrible it is to believe that you alone are nothing, that you have no value unless you are in some form of servitude. However your life is yours, it is not someone elses and the idea of servitude is in fact to eliminate the thing you want to keep – self esteem.

    • I appreciate your thoughts, and understand what you’re saying. However, I think we differ a bit on the definition of self-esteem. Here, I am basing it off of identifying our gifts, using them for significance, and learning from their impact. I believe we all have value whether we use our gifts to serve others or not, but I also believe our greatest worth comes from experiencing (or learning) our impact on others’ lives. I hope that clarifies the post.

  • John

    Not everyone gets a trophy? I beg to differ. It seems that if we are going to teach are children that rewards are based on performance, we as adults need to think about the messages we are sending. Take for example:

    -Kodak CEO Antonio Perez to receive nearly $6 million in consulting fees and stock incentives AFTER he led the company into bankruptcy
    -$20 million severance giveaway to bankrupt American Airlines outgoing CEO Tom Horton

    And there are countless more examples. The Wall Street Journal found that median compensation of CEOs at 21 companies that filed for bankruptcy was $8.7 million! (See Wall Street Journal)

    And don’t think that this is an issue isolated to Wall Street. Look at government. Currently, Congress has the lowest approval rating in the history of congressional approval tracking… yet many members of this congress are going to get re-elected. Isn’t that giving the ultimate trophy for just showing up with no thought to accountability.

    Or healthcare for example. How much a CEO gets paid to run a non-profit hospital in the U.S. is not linked to how well that organization performs on quality and safety measures, readmission or mortality rates, its profit margin, or the extent of its charity care. (See JAMA)

    And what about actual trophies. I personally think running a marathon, or completing a triathlon are profound athletic feats. And everyone who crosses the finish line gets a medal. Did they all win? Nope. They all showed up… did their best, and finished. But they all get a trophy.

    Seems to me that adults are quite hypocritical in this issue about generation Y and the millennial generation.

    All trophies, all awards, all bonuses should be based on actual performance.

  • smorpo1

    Having played sports all my life where I failed and succeeded, taught me a lot. This is part and parcel of what’s happening in our society as a whole, and it doesn’t work because it’s contrary to human nature. You can’t put “socialism” in sports or school because competition really does exist for jobs, schools, etc…and kids that are at least not exposed to this are in for a rude awakening. The “A” students don’t become “C” students to even it out and carry the “F” students. You don’t just get to “win” because you show up, you actually have to be better and contribute. As kids try to succeed, it drives innovation, competition and ingenuity. Of course, there are negatives, but failure is NOT always bad. Trying to remove that from every corner of society to make everything “fair” takes away motivation and makes us weak.
    As a new parent myself, I am not looking forward to the “failure” part, but I am going to raise my kids with these things in mind.

    • Great thoughts, thanks for sharing. I agree with you that failure is not a bad thing, it can also be extremely difficult to watch your kids to go through it, but the long term outcome is typically worth it.

  • Nicky

    I could not agree more! I’ve wondered if people who came up with these ideas were the ones that weren’t “picked” at recess. One of the most powerful lines in movies ever comes from “The Incredibles”- I’ll sell my inventions so that *everyone* can have powers. *Everyone* can be super! And when everyone’s super…
    [chuckles evilly]
    Syndrome: – no one will be.
    I tell my kids all the time about my failure. And my families failure, friends… I tell them you have two choices about mistakes. Learn from others or learn from your own.

    • Thank you for sharing, Nicky. I love that wisdom about learning from mistakes.