“Participation” Trophies Just for Showing Up to a Game?
Wow! You have a lot of trophies!" one of my daughter's friends exclaimed at a recent play date.
"Yeah," my daughter answered, looking at the beautiful figurines of dancers and gymnasts on top of the shiny trophies, "but most of them everyone got." Then, she quietly opened her drawer and showed her friend three more treasured possessions, medals she earned for a perfect score at the state music festival, passing levels of swim tests, and coming in second place at chess. They weren't as large or as impressive-looking as the trophies with flipping, pirouetting golden girls but my daughter knew they were far more valuable.
Of course, she also wants me to keep her "participation certificate" in her class's "Pumpkin Olympics," an activity in which they selected pumpkins from the playground and then measured, weighed, appraised, and voted for whose pumpkin fit a list of superlatives. Her pumpkin didn't win honors in any category, and even if it had it would reflect luck more than achievement, but the certificate was a memento of a fun day at school.
In education and child development we discuss "praising for effort" a lot. Children who are praised for effort work harder to overcome challenges and take more pride in their accomplishments. Children who are praised more often for achievement may become risk-averse or dependent on external motivation.
Unfortunately, this has become perverted into a feel-good culture where every child gets a participation trophy. Not only do children not need to win to get an award, they don't even need to try particularly hard. These are less "participation trophies" and more "showing up, at least occasionally" trophies. Kids may enjoy displaying these trinkets in their rooms but they definitely know the difference between what is given and what is earned.
If your child is too young to practice winning and losing, then competitive activities should be put off until later. This is a skill that should be gradually introduced and practiced throughout childhood. As parents, we can continue to point out moments when our child struggled but persevered or practiced or studied hard and suggest that they feel very proud of their efforts. We can also point out the efforts of successful people in all fields.
To balance our praise of effort and achievement we can offer a small recognition of effort, such as a team photo, an end-of-season ice cream party, or a certificate for children who show up, ready to participate, a certain percentage of the time. Even children who aren't the fastest, strongest, or best at a particular activity will want to keep a reminder of the fun they had. Trophies and medals, however, should be reserved for champions.
To take away all recognition of winners sends the message that there is no need to strive for excellence. It also takes away the important opportunity to be happy for a friend who won.
When kids work hard, learn from their losses, and celebrate their victories, we all win.