The Importance of Awarding Effort

There has been a lot of attention surrounding participation trophies. It’s a decades-long debate about rewarding kids for participating in an activity.

Some parents argue that rewarding participation causes kids to feel entitled. As if an organization rewarding participation 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. Downplaying participation devalues any effort they put into that activity.

The trophies don’t turn kids into entitled brats who grow up into entitled adults. There’s no reason to punish the 99% of kids who get value from a participation trophy.

It Goes Beyond the Trophies

Participation trophies stand for effort. They can instill confidence and pride in those kids that might not be the best. You can tell kids they did a good job even if they 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 showing up is a big first step. You’re setting yourself up for success. There doesn’t need to be a participation trophy for everything, but there’s no reason to call for the elimination of every participation trophy.

There’s a reason why you learn to add before you learn to multiply. Kids shouldn’t just learn the hard lessons in life. 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 Pull the Discussion Down to Reality

Kid being a kid playing The Floor is Lava - participation trophy argument
Image from XKCD 735

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 first-place team’s trophy. 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 lose, they’re rewarded for coming back to try again. They’re rewarded for learning more and for sticking through and giving it their all.

At some point, the participation trophies stop. Most of the time recognition stops completely. The kids will have learned 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 and 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. Every kid should receive a participation trophy. Everyone should work hard and know they did a good job. We all should receive feedback on what we did. That’s how we 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 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.