There has been a lot of attention surrounding participation trophies. It’s been a spike in a decades-long debate about the merits of rewarding kids for participating in a variety of activities.
Parents like football player James Harrison argue that rewarding for participation causes kids to feel entitled, that the kids haven’t earned anything. As if an organization rewarding participation directly causes kids to “cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”
Those kids earned those trophies by participating. They didn’t get them for hanging with friends or watching tv. To say they didn’t earn them devalues any effort those kids, and every other kid who got the same trophy, put into that season or event that they worked hard to prepare for.
The trophies don’t automatically turn kids into entitled brats who grow up into entitled adults. Attitude like that is fostered by quite a few factors. There’s no reason to punish the 99% of kids who get value from a participation trophy because of the 1% who is going to expect one every time.
It goes beyond the trophies
Participation trophies stand for effort, and they can instill confidence and pride in those kids that might not be the best. You can be told you did a good job and still have things to improve on. Teachers use all kinds of positive reinforcement to get kids to learn. Should we take away stickers from kindergarteners because they didn’t earn it?
Sometimes trying your best is good enough. Depending on the context, it’s right to award a “thank you for trying.” Working hard to better yourself should be rewarded just as much as winning. In life, you won’t always be recognized for just showing up, but the first lesson to learn is that showing up is half the battle. You’re setting yourself up for success.
There’s a reason why you learn to add before you learn to multiply. You can’t only teach kids the hard lessons in life and expect to have positive results. You teach kids in increments. You don’t send them off into the world at seven years old and say, “I’ll expect my rent check by the end of the week.” They’ll learn the hard lessons. But they won’t take anything away from those lessons if they miss other ones on the way there.
Let’s bring the discussion down to reality
When those kids receive participation awards in a competition, they know they didn’t win. Their trophies aren’t as big or as nice as the other team’s. But it makes them proud to have been there. It gives them something to show their grandparents, their friends, their parents. It makes them want to come back and try again, try for that bigger trophy. If they win, they learn that hard work sometimes pays off. If they don’t, they’re rewarded for coming back to try again, for learning more, for sticking through and giving it their all.
At some point, the participation trophies stop. In most cases, all recognition stops completely, replaced by college admissions, rent, and a day job. And along the way those kids will have gone through the process of learning how to find satisfaction for themselves. Those that learn to do that will be successful.
The real reason for participation trophies
Maybe you always won first place. Maybe you’re the best at everything. But if you’re not working to better yourself and learning compassion for others, then you haven’t learned very much. Everyone should fail. Everyone should receive a participation trophy. Everyone should work hard and be told they did a good job. Everyone should be given feedback on what they did to learn how to improve.
The league’s job, any program’s job, is to reward participation. Without kids, there is no league, there is no winning team or first place trophies. Their job is to keep the kids coming back. It’s the coaches’ and the parents’ jobs to give the feedback.
Compliment the work of others. Give constructive feedback. Avoid putting down others to lift yourself up. Don’t get offended when others offer that help. Everyone can improve. In any profession, on any project. That’s the message we should be sending, not by taking away trophies, but by promoting hard work, sportsmanship, and teamwork.
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