The Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association is making mandatory something called "non-result-oriented competition." The term may sound like a negation of itself, but technically it means no keeping score in youth soccer tournaments. So no winners and no losers - and no feeling bad.

The reality, of course, was summed up by 10-year-old Mike Ross of Plymouth, Mass., who told the Associated Press, "It's dumb and stupid."Well, right now the dumb and stupid rule covers kids throughout the state 10 and under, but the association is considering extending it up to age 12. Of course, one of the reasons that Ross is right is that most kids are not dumb and stupid. For starters, they will keep score themselves. It's just that the winners won't get the recognition they have earned or learn how to be good sports in victory. And the losers won't be inspired to learn from their mistakes and try harder next time, or learn how to be gracious in defeat.

But all the kids will know that, when told "everybody played the same," it's a big charade put on by grown-ups who are not supposed to lie to them.

Some of the folks behind the "no-score" rule were probably concerned that too many soccer parents were bearing down on their children for losing or idolizing them for winning. Fair enough, if wrongheaded. But I have a sense that many "no-score" backers are like the parents with the bumper stickers proclaiming "my kid is an honor student at such-and-such school." These would better read "my kid didn't make the honor roll, so instead of using that constructively for him I'll just say `It doesn't matter.' And while I'm at it, I'll smudge the line between kids who deserve that honor and kids who don't."

In other words, it's all about "self-esteem" or just "feeling good" about ourselves no matter what.

From soccer fields to classrooms, this ideology is prevalent today. Charles Sykes looks closely at this issue in his book "Dumbing Down Our Kids." He points to "Just Because I Am: A Child's Book of Affirmation" - a "complete course on self-esteem" taught in many schools. For starters, it says that "Nothing is as important as self-esteem to a child's well-being and success," even though there is no empirical evidence for this. Forget religion, parents, development of character and abilities or learning to esteem and care about others. The authors say kids should have the right to feel good about themselves "exactly as they are."

So taken to its logical extreme, a kid who is mean, or violent, or refuses to learn can feel good about himself "just as he is." Even for typical kids I wonder: if they are always just great "as is," why should they strive to improve their character or abilities or anything? It's no wonder then, as Sykes laments, that American students, who consistently test last on international comparisons of math abilities, test first in how they feel about their math abilities.

"Just Because I Am," typical of the self-esteem movement, has lots of hands-on curricula that teaches a child to focus on "me-me-me" - like most grade-school kids aren't already masters of that subject!

This is all in contrast to what seems obvious is true self-esteem, or having an appropriate understanding of our intrinsic value as created in God's image.

To flourish, this must be met with an honest self-appraisal of our own abilities, merits and flaws. And it must be followed with modesty and restraint on the one hand and self-reflection and attempts to improve where necessary and to the extent possible for us on the other. And true self-esteem means desiring to acknowledge and honor others who excel in character or ability.

Yes, it's a lot to grasp for a little one. That's exactly why these lessons should be started early, so that they can one day take full root in the adult.

Conversely, when we insist that winners aren't winners and we have nothing to learn from them, just so that we can feel "good" about ourselves, it seems to me we all become selfish losers.