Parenting: The pros and cons of trophies

August 12, 2010

Jason also has two trophies won during his high-school football career. Billy has medals won during both wrestling and jazz band competitions. Micah has a trophy from winning Othello at Strategy Games club. Trust me, there are a lot of them.

But none of the Buckman boys' trophies was awarded as a result of winning a championship sporting event. It's ironic. Jason played on a team that won a Flag Football league championship. But that league gives everyone a participation trophy and doesn't give out a championship trophy. All three boys have played in championship games and lost - and they DID get trophies, even though their teams came in second. The result of all this, I think, is that the boys don't treasure their trophies the way my husband does his childhood trophies - which were few and far between.

There's been a lot of debate about whether all kids who participate in a given league or sport should get a trophy. The "pro" side says participation should be rewarded, so that the self-esteem of children who are less athletically gifted isn't overlooked. It's an "A for effort" attitude. And certainly, this position results in fewer tears and hurt feelings.

The other side argues that by giving everyone a trophy, you're eliminating the reward for success, encouraging mere participation, not excellence. This side says only winners should get recognition and that giving too many rewards makes them meaningless. Rather than increasing self-esteem, too many rewards make kids question whether they even need to try hard.

So, what can parents and coaches do to raise kids' self-esteem, even if they're not great athletes? It's a question that has repercussions beyond the world of youth athletics - should everyone who turns in a school paper get a minimum grade of B or C, just because they wrote something? Taken to an extreme, should everyone who applies to a particular university be admitted? Should everyone who applies for a job be hired? Clearly, the answer to these final questions is "No." And that's why many child psychologists who once argued in favor of participation trophies for kids are now changing their minds.

Turns out, they say, these kinds of award don't increase self-esteem. But they can lead to a sense of entitlement, that makes rejection of any kind later in life (think about college and job rejections) much more difficult to take. As we get older and go through life, we all learn that merely showing up isn't enough - to get a raise, or get a promotion, or even have really happy relationships. We also learn that some people will be wealthier than others, some will be thinner or prettier or whatever. And while I'm not advocating witholding praise from children who try hard, I don't feel you're helping children, especially once they reach an age where they understand competition, but not differentiating between winning and not winning.

Not all the lessons we have to teach our kids are easy. But learning that your team lost - and that you'll survive, and that your parents will still love you, and that you can still good at other things or at other times, is probably a lot more valuable than a trophy that'll gather dust long after the details of any competition are long forgotten.

Here are some links to others' thoughts on the pros or cons of participation trophies:

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