Last week my son learned a valuable lesson about blue ribbons at the Shenandoah County Fair.
Along with two of his siblings, my 8-year-old, Kason, entered two exhibits in the youth division. There were approximately six billion categories to choose from, but he decided to take his talents only to the drawing competition. He was confident this was the year he would finally take home a coveted blue ribbon.
On the first day of the fair, his entries, along with hundreds of others across all categories and age groups, were registered and hung in display cases in a long exhibit hall that I thought smelled more like hay than creativity.
Never mind the smell; optimism reigned!
A few days later the gang stopped by to see how the children had "faired." Kason was genuinely excited when we discovered a blue ribbon hanging over his brother's painting. He gave him a high-five and they scooted off to look for his sister’s creations in a different display case.
Much to their delight they found that she’d done well too, winning a blue ribbon for a painting of a horse. I loved seeing her brothers so proud of her work and achievement.
We navigated to the final case, the one that held Kason’s two masterpiece entries. We walked slowly, trying gamely to admire the other winners in other categories but with our own anticipation building. We must have looked like impatient tourists making our way through the halls of the Louvre only pretending to be interested in the other pieces en route to the Mona Lisa.
Everyone knew we’d find a ribbon of Kason’s favorite color draped along the side of at least one of his two drawings. This was his year.
We found Kason’s first entry, a drawing of a sports car, sitting ribbonless like a broken down vehicle at a repair shop. “That’s all right, bud. Your other drawing is better anyway. Let's find it.”
He nodded and we pressed forward, our feet and eyes carrying us from one entry to another. There were so many colorful ribbons splashed across the shelves that it looked like two rainbows had collided and there were no survivors.
At the far end of the display case, high on a shelf, we found his second entry. It, too, boasted no ribbon. Instead, the drawing stared back at him like a lonely kid on the playground, desperate for attention and a friend. I draped my arm around Kason's slouched shoulders. “Next year, bud. You’ll get one next year.”
He looked up at me and flashed a tart smile that seemed to say, “Would you just let me mope a minute?”
He took my hand and I silently considered the options as we walked away. The dad in me suggested I surprise him and make a special ribbon at home. I could drown his sadness with cotton candy and a fried Twinkie. We could blame it on the judges, the rules, congress or the president.
But the father in me whispered otherwise. Don’t my children need to learn that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose but always you learn?
You already know our culture has been creeping toward an everyone’s-a-winner attitude for years. Everyone gets a trophy. Keeping score isn’t fair or helpful. A well-regarded study from gradeinflation.com reveals that colleges are giving more As than ever before. A shocking 43 percent of all letter grades awarded are As.
That’s a lot of blue ribbons.
With my disappointed little man still dragging his feet through the carnival gravel, I settled on a compromise between softy dad and thick-skinned father.
Over a delicious caramel apple, I explained that the treat tasted so good because we didn’t have them all the time. If we did, they wouldn’t taste as special.
We discussed his disappointment and I jokingly offered to make him one at home. We could pretend it was real and call his entry a winner, but wouldn’t he rather come back next year and work harder? Wouldn’t he prefer to spend more time on his entry, perhaps choose categories he’s more confident in and win a blue ribbon he’ll know he earned?
“And if I don’t?” he wondered aloud.
Then he'll try again, and again and again until he’s a blue-ribbon winner.
When the fair wrapped, Kason and his siblings went to pick up their entries and ribbons. To Kason’s dismay, he learned that blue ribbon winners also won a cash prize of $3.50. Imagine the look on his face when a volunteer handed his older sister and 5-year-old brother a check.
“I want one of those next year,” he said.
“They’re just like the blue ribbons, bud. They don’t give them to everyone and no one is going to just give it to you. You’ve got to go earn it.”
Something tells me next year's fair will have a different ending. And if it doesn’t, I'm buying both the caramel apple and the fried Twinkie.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jasonfwright.com.