Let’s not blame the trophies.

First, it’s important to note that I’m not addressing the concept of “grade inflation” or the idea that every child in a given class is an honor student (as was eloquently written about by Michael Sigman in his article “When Everyone Gets a Trophy, No One Wins.”)

I’m writing about sports — and specifically the types of trophies that athlete, and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison denied his children and posted about on Instagram. In his post, Harrison pointed out that “Sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better.”  James Harrison’s parenting decision is a reflection of the values he wants to teach his children, and I applaud his making a point and defining those goals for his children, however I don’t think they need apply to everybody.

Here’s the thing. When you’re nine years old, it’s probable that your best isn’t going to be good enough. In fact, maybe when you’re that age the functions associated with being on a team, learning to accept that other people play before you and that you’re not cut out to be an athlete may actually be your best.

My father wasn’t in the NFL.  I was a marginal athlete — but I still love and play sports.

I was getting Little League trophies for being part of the team long before they became controversial. I didn’t have the luxury of being one of the “stars” — but I knew who the stars were — we all did. They were the guys who got the MVP (most valuable player) and were named team captain. They were the kids with a drive that I didn’t have for sports, who were ultra-competitive, and who cried when our team lost a game. They were often the kids with parents who were driving their sporting careers, even though, as eight-year-olds, they were a long way from the majors.

I wasn’t ever going to be one of them.

But I loved getting my year-end trophy. I loved having the coach say a few encouraging words about me at the season ending pizza party. I liked being part of a team — a group of kids who had been forged into friendship by our ups and downs on the field — and watching my teammates each get recognized and kidded about events during the past season was as fun as the games for me.

We knew who sucked, and we knew who didn’t.

My trophy wasn’t about my on-field achievements, at least that’s not what it represented to nine-year-old me.  It reminded me that I was on a team with my school pals. It reminded me that I should be at the game a half hour before game time so that I could warm up. It reminded me that I shouldn’t ask the coach when he was going to put me into the game. It also reminded me that I had made one miraculous catch, and even though I’d never gotten a hit that year, my friends accepted me as a member of their team.  It was mostly a souvenir – a physical representation of the experience.

So, why would we want to deny our children an icon that would similarly remind them of those experiences? Trophies aren’t entitlements. This isn’t about teaching our children that only the strong survive (at age six through twelve). This is about marking the fact that they had kept a commitment and shown up to the games. That they had experienced the wins and losses with everyone else, and had contributed, to the best of their abilities, to the outcomes of those contests.  Participation trophies are not a gateway drug to entitlement.

As far as I can tell, none of my peers lost their “drive to want to do better” because they’d gotten a trophy for participating. Many of my Little League teammates grew up to be hard-working professionals, run businesses and even supervise school districts.

I coached Little League. I coached AYSO. My kids had winning and losing records, but all of my clubs were taught what it meant to compete and to be part of a team. If the league didn’t provide trophies, I would make a certificate for my players. I gave a Sportsmanship Award. I gave a Best Attitude certificate, and then a series of funny, personalized “awards” like the “Timex Award” for a player who took a licking and kept on ticking. These awards were given at a group event, with appreciation, understanding and humor.

Not everyone on our team was great, but all of them made some sort of contribution — even if their contribution was teaching the better players how to be patient with teammates who weren’t as skilled as they.

My mantle no longer holds my participation trophies, or those of my children, but all of our trophies served a valuable purpose in our lives. In those moments they reminded us that we were part of a team, something bigger than ourselves — a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on today’s youth.

So, let’s not blame the trophies.  Let’s take responsibility for the way our children are being parented.

Although slightly modified, this blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

HappyIsPerfectGrayThey say “nobody’s perfect,” and they’re right. Perfection is a myth.

Really.

The problem is, that if we look at Instagram, Facebook, or other social media postings, it might appear that a lot of people have really perfect lives.

What does that say to our kids? The digital natives who will follow in our footsteps as long as their GPS supports the direction we’re going. Will they feel badly about their “imperfection,” and with whom will they share those feelings?

I’m usually pretty comfortable with social media. I don’t really see it as a threat to people who understand how to interact face to face. More and more however, our youngsters are killing themselves because they can’t live up to the perfection that their propagandizing friends project.

Hopefully, your kid isn’t “different.” According to the Megan Meier Foundation (An organization whose mission is to promote awareness, education, and positive change in response to the issues surrounding bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide), “Among overweight adolescents, 61% have received mean or embarrassing posts online and 59% have received mean texts, e-mails or instant messages.” But, that’s not really a problem, ’cause there’s an app for that!

By downloading the app “Facetune” by APK we can slim ourselves down to meet that perfection standard without a problem. That’s right — why deal with reality, when we can show our friends something completely different?

Got a skin problem? No problem, there’s an app for that too! Use Facetune again, or go buy “Acne” by Modiface, both will clean up your skin as quickly as you can say microdermabrasion. Did you always wish you had blue eyes? No problem, you can change those in your photos too — no need to wear those troublesome contact lenses.

Today, it’s as much as an augmented free world, as it is a brave new one.

We’d all like to live in an ideal world, but that’s just not what life is about. So how can we condition our children for reality and keep their feet on the ground?

Give Them a Sense of Self

We can teach them that they are “good” by setting boundaries for them. Starting at an early age, it’s important to teach kids that following the rules (or living up to parental expectations) makes them “good” children. It’s often as easy as praising them (honestly) when they are behaving properly, or ambushing them with compliments like “I think you’re a good person,” or “I appreciate it when you neaten your room.” These doses of appreciation give kids an inner sense of “goodness” that strengthens them against the surface truths of social media.

When they get their first phone or online account, have an honest conversation with them about the pitfalls of social media, and teach them to be skeptical. By giving them some objectivity, we can teach them to question the images they see in their social sphere and gain a perspective from it. Make a confidentiality agreement and encourage them to discuss their observations with you. Understand the etiquette of social media and discuss boundaries with them. I was surprised to learn that it was bad when I “liked” something on the page of one of their “friends.”

Teach Them to Be Truthful

I was always uncomfortable keeping secrets. I would worry about being found out and getting in trouble. My parents gave me an out by saying, “If you ever do anything that you think might get you in trouble, and you come talk to us about it before we discover it on our own, we will not punish you.” That made sense, and it always resulted in an honest conversation about how to avoid doing it again. My parents called that an Armistice, and at its most basic, gave me, and my kids, the ability to believe in justice, and gave us hope that “cheaters never prosper.”

Give Them a Perspective About Others

I don’t know how many times my wife and I have had to say to our kids, “The only person whose behavior you can control is you !!”

There are many disappointments in life, and young people don’t make that any easier when they attack each other’s weak spots. When someone posts false information, or says something that causes a child to be humiliated, it’s important to help our children understand how to control the way they react to those feelings. The best thing to do is to teach our child to control their reaction, because the behavior of insensitive people is usually more their problem than ours. Why give the bully the satisfaction of knowing they’ve gotten to you?

Reaffirm your child’s goodness: “You are an intelligent, loyal, and friendly person. You tell the truth, you care about your family. That person has a real problem if they’re being mean to you!” Either your child will agree (as they cry in your arms), or they will confess as to why it is the other kid was really being mean. Either way, it’s a win-win.” In this way we script our children with a self-affirming pep talk that they can use to protect themselves from those who attack their imperfections at any time.

Be Honest and Loving at Home

Nobody’s perfect. Nobody lives perfectly, and, certainly, nobody parents perfectly.
As I believe my cab driver should know where he or she is going, so I believe our children should know that we are confident in our roles as their parents. Confident parents are able to listen to and value the opinions of their children. With teenagers, “My way or the highway.” is not a successful tactic. A child on social media is forming an identity — often right before our eyes. They are sensitive to the opinions of others, and, whether they like it or not, their parent’s opinions still matter. By being loving, fair, and firm, we create a home for our children that is safe and reliable. This place where they are valued and respected by parents who listen, and explain, gives them very solid footing out in the world.

Ultimately, making our children comfortable with themselves (and their reality) is the best way to protect them from the feelings of inadequacy that the “perfection” of others can cause.  Despite the perceptions that they may be getting from social media, it’s critical that we teach them that life is full of imperfection.  Showing them how we deal with it, keeps them from being threatened by the propaganda of others.

After all, happy is truly as perfect as any of us will ever get.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post.