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Smell the Coffee: Almost isn't good enough

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The only surprising part about last week's "Jeopardy!" drama was that it didn't happen sooner.

For those who might have missed it, "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek was taken to task over controversy that erupted after a 12-year-old contestant on a special children's edition of the popular game show misspelled his answer during Final Jeopardy.

The question was to name the document, which took effect in 1863, that Abraham Lincoln called "a fit and necessary war measure."

The answer was the Emancipation Proclamation, but Thomas Hurley III, an eighth-grader from Newtown, Conn., spelled his response "emanciptation" and his answer was ruled incorrect.

Even if Hurley had spelled the word correctly, he was still too far behind the leader to have won, so while his mistake ended up costing him $2,000, it was not what prevented him from being the champion. Still, that didn't stop the fury from being unleashed, with many claiming the boy had been cheated, including Hurley's parents.

Many of those complaining said the spelling error wasn't that bad, that he was fairly close, that you could tell he knew the correct answer, so that should've been enough.

In a country where every child gets a trophy, where everyone's a winner all the time, regardless of effort or skill, I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that we've reached a point where we're wanting to also reward "close enough."

Some said Hurley clearly knew the correct answer, but not how to spell it, so it should've been accepted. But for the show to accept anything less than correct would mean that from that point forward, a barely recognizable or incomplete answer would have to be considered, with judges having to guess at the contestant's intent or depth of knowledge.

Instead, the show's producers drew a line in the sand.

"If 'Jeopardy!' were to give credit for an incorrect response (however minor), the show would effectively penalize the other players," the producers of "Jeopardy!" wrote. "We love presenting young people as contestants on our show and make every effort to be fair and consistent in their treatment."

I admire the show for not backing down. We aren't doing children a favor by making everything gentle and even. A child would be better prepared for a life that is seldom fair if they're taught from an early age how to handle -- with grace -- the hand that they're dealt.

Feeling disappointed or even embarrassed by a loss is completely normal, but it's how the child is taught to deal with what happened that matters. Rather than wallow and complain, Hurley should've been advised to stand up straight, give himself a pat on the back for having been clever enough to qualify for the show, and then maybe been shown how to make a self-deprecating joke or two that would show his strength of character, and move on.

If we continue treating everyone the same, regardless of effort or skill, we're going to have a seriously hot mess on our hands. We're going to be dealing with generations raised to believe they're entitled to much that they simply are not. An almost-right answer is not the same as the right one. A ball downed on the one-yard line is not a touchdown. Almost getting the job doesn't get one a paycheck. That's life.

Some will probably disagree, claiming there's no harm in giving trophies or pretty certificates or more of "Jeopardy!'s" money to all, but what they're failing to see is that by rewarding everyone, the prize is devalued. How is one child's self-esteem more important than the other child's hard work and achievement? Rewarding the child who was wrong takes away from the one who was right.

We need to stop looking at it as raising children. We're raising adults. If we want them to become functioning members of society, they need to learn how to win and how to lose. They need to be able to take criticism, cope with arbitrary decisions and handle setbacks with class.

And they need to see that people who work hard to achieve are rewarded more than those who do not.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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