I’m not entirely sure when or where it started, but in an effort to peg both millennials and Gen Z as “everything that’s wrong with society today”, it has somehow looped back to our childhoods and how “everyone got a trophy”–hell, there’s even a book now about how to “deal” with Generation Y in the workplace because we are used to receiving trophies for everything we do.
I’ve followed a lot of the stories that seem to go to the extreme, and I understand why people are outraged when schools cancel competitions because they don’t want to make other kids feel bad, or sports leagues not keeping score for fear of making kids disappointed.
But there also seems to be a sense that if our kids all get trophies, that somehow they will never want to work or compete.
Let’s take a look at the adult world–there’s an argument made that people on welfare are just freeloaders and why would you want to work if you get access to food stamps, housing, education, and a check? Well, if that’s the case, why do you work then? If the government has said that if you don’t work, we won’t let you necessarily starve to death, why don’t more people quit their job and live that life? Because we understand that even though that safety net is there, it’s not an ideal life for the great majority of people (and yes, even those who currently do use government assistance).
Do you think everyone doesn’t get a trophy in the adult world? Look at step-raises based on longevity of employment. My place of employment has “merit raises”, but it all comes out of the same pool, and basically means that just about everyone gets the same raise each year, just for showing up and doing their job effectively. Soldiers in the military receive the Iraq Campaign Medal for spending thirty consecutive days within the borders of Iraq. If you engaged in combat, the 30-day requirement is waived, but it makes no distinction otherwise between guy on the front line and guy serving food in the mess. If you finish the Boston Marathon, you get a medal. Even if you come in dead last place.
So let’s not act like don’t we don’t still give trophies out to adults just for showing up, because we do.
But getting back to kids, what really is the harm in giving everyone a participation trophy? My son played soccer this past spring. A natural soccer star my child is not, but he was 4 years-old playing an organized sport for the first time in his life. When your kid starts playing sports, you REALLY want them to be awesome at it, it’s fun having the really good kid on the team. But at his first game, he didn’t play for a single second. He said he was too cold and didn’t want to play.
I adjusted my expectations for how I wanted him to perform.
From then on, I only wanted him to go out and participate. He didn’t need to score a goal, he didn’t even need to kick the ball, I just wanted him to step out on the field, play with his teammates, and provide a little bit of effort. And he did. And I was very proud of him for doing that. For young kids, having a memento of their effort might just be enough to get them to come back to play again and get better. I’m not saying every kid needs a trophy that says “#1 MVP”, but something that recognizes that their age-adjusted participation was appreciated.
As our kids get older, competition becomes more natural, there’s a better understanding that there are winners and losers in a game. When you win your league championship, you do deserve something special and deserve to be rewarded for winning. But does it really need to be at the expense of the team that went 0-12, but did go out there and do their best each week? Kids are motivated as they get older by competition. By the time I was 12, I wanted to win the Little League Championship in our league. Even though I knew at the end of the day, we would all get the same trophy, I still wanted to win. I wanted to be the best. And that was after a lifetime of receiving participation trophies.
And it’s not about the trophy, really, the trophy is just something concrete we tend to focus on. It’s not about mabndatory participation plaques. It’s about recognizing that our kids aren’t going to be made weak by simply making them feel appreciated. It doesn’t mean eliminating competition so that kids never feel defeat, but it also doesn’t mean making life cut and dry, because it’s not even reality in the adult world, and perhaps we’re placing too much stock in trophies for all the problems we have in society.