We have been working on Pinewood Derby cars for Cub Scouts. My own Cub Scout has been bugging me about every 5 minutes for the past month to work on his car. It is, fortunately, mostly done now. My son can be very intense.
Tears are a possibility.
A few years ago another son was in the Pinewood Derby. There is no heritage of Pinewood Derby excellence in my family. However, that year I think we actually had the fastest car in the Pack. I say “I think” because the powers that be decided it would be better if they didn’t actually designate a winner; instead every boy got some kind of award. Since no one in my family ever wins these kind of things , I was a little frustrated, as was my son. But we were good sports and went along.
I am of two minds about this Everyone is a Winner approach. On one hand, I want to shield my children as long as possible from the “agony of defeat,” which is relatively inevitable when their father has the car-building skills that I do. Childhood is something precious that should be protected vigilantly. They will have plenty of time to learn about the disappointments and ugliness of the adult world.
My other mind wonders that maybe kids need to have defeat along with encouragement, rather than being always told how special they are. Some people think the sooner they get tough and recognize that the world rewards winners, the sooner they will understand the importance of doing their best and learning to deal with setbacks and disappointment.
I also wonder about the social implications of Everyone is a Winner approach. The American work ethic has been essential to economic prosperity in the United States and elsewhere. We work far more hours per year than our counterparts in Europe, for instance. When kids grow up playing games where everyone wins, are we breeding this essential capitalistic spirit? (T-ball games where the referees don’t even call outs on the rare occasions that kids are actually able to generate one are another example.)
I read a lot in the press about the current generation of young adults who want interesting, satisfying careers without “putting in their dues.” Most careers have traditionally required grunt work, which lets young workers show their commitment and work ethic to elder superiors who then reward that ethic with more responsibility. Sure, everyone would like an intellectually stimulating career from the outset, but the fact remains that most of the essential work that drives our economy is not that interesting—even in the jobs that require college degrees. Are young people able to work patiently their way up the totem pole and do the hard things that are poorly rewarded in the short run but pay off in the long run? Are they willing to spend some time on the bottom, or do they want to “win” right off the bat, like the always did growing up?
On the other hand, people are much less likely than in decades past to work for the same company, or even in the same career, for long periods of time. Putting in the grunt work is no guarantee the economy won’t leave you behind as technology changes. What does accommodating a changing economic climate require? It seems to me that experience in losing and moving on to the next challenge would be beneficial.
Several years ago I read Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. At the time I thought it was one of the silliest things I’d ever read. A colleague told me that was usual—economists hate Weber, but sociologists love him. I’d have to look at that text again to see if I’ve changed my mind, but I have become convinced that there are powerful cultural underpinnings to the capitalistic spirit, and I wonder how our society is doing keeping that spirit alive. This short essay has been full of clichés (and there have been more that I mercifully deleted), but I think that those clichés might be some of the most important drivers of our economic engine. I hope they are still alive in the minds of our kids and young adults.