Before anything else, I'd like to just start by saying that the arguments against participation trophies are not a partisan political debate. There are liberal and conservative individuals on both sides of the argument, as perfectly demonstrated by the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church stories recounted in Junod's article. By focusing only on anti-trophy conservatives in the article, we are being kept from having the meaningful conversation that is needed. I'll proceed without partisan arguments because this isn't a right vs. left issue.
While the author was trying to defend them, the article was devoid of any real evidence that participation trophies are good. It was a "feel-good" opinion piece, but one that tried to convince readers that there was no harm. The problem is that just because it makes you feel good in the moment doesn't mean that something is necessarily good for you in the long run and that there isn't a lot of valid evidence against it. While I don't have any personal experience, I've heard that cocaine makes people feel good when they use it; but there's enough evidence of the long-term addictive effects that we, as a society, have decided that it should be illegal. This is what prompted me to write this response: a lack of facts with good intentions is still missing the facts and shouldn't be construed as a legitimate argument for or against anything.
There are a few assumptions in the piece. The author says that parents must "have no objections" to the concept of participation trophies "or the arrangement would not exist." That's an incorrect assumption. Obviously, enough people have publicly objected to the matter because we're hearing those objections now, loud and clear. Allowing kids to take part in the culture doesn't mean acceptance of the culture; it means there are no other currently available options.
Honestly, it doesn't surprise me that some parents, when asked as they were by Danny Downing in the article, would want their kids to get participation trophies. I don't have kids, but I can appreciate that I would want them to succeed at everything. Love does that you. But love's blinding effects can be just as harmful as good, if left to their own devices with no regard for the consequences. We would all do just about anything for our families and loved ones, but it's our understanding of society's mores and the consequences of our actions that keeps us in check. But if the action seemed like a good thing and had no perceptible consequences, we would have no reason to not proceed. So the question is: are participation trophies (and the culture surrounding them) a good thing or is it possible that they're doing harm?
Why do we think participation trophies are good to begin with? We want our kids to feel good about themselves, but why do we think these little pieces of plastic accomplish that? It speaks to one of the most basic, primal human desires: the desire to please others. We are driven by this innate desire to please because it makes us feel like a part of the group and in primitive times, when we were living under the constant threat that a lion (or some other big nasty) could snatch a weak individual, there was safety in numbers. Even though we're no longer exposed to the same threats from Mother Nature, those basic desires are hard-wired into our DNA and the need to please is very much a part of who we are.
I've seen it in action. As a part-time job, I teach group fitness and small-group training sessions. My job is to make adults do something that very few people in their right minds want to do: exercise! Exercising can be hard. We know the benefits, but that doesn't take away from the fact that sweating and breathing heavy in front of strangers is hard work!
So part of my role as the instructor is to motivate my participants to keep working hard. You'd be amazed how motivated a person can get from something as simple as acknowledging their hard work with a simple "good job" or "you've got it". They appreciate being recognized for their actions and they work harder for continued recognition.
So knowing this, it would be relatively harmless to tell everyone in every class that they're doing a "good job", right? Well, actually, it isn't so harmless. If someone isn't really working hard and they get told that they're doing great, one of two things happens: either they stay at the level that they are or they realize that the instructor must not be paying attention and they put in less work. So thanks to human nature, even though I may have the best of intentions, it leads to the exact opposite result.
In his book, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us", Daniel Pink (who worked as the chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore... To reiterate, this is not a partisan issue.) cites studies that show the long-held belief that rewards and prizes motivate people to do better work is flat-out wrong. When given a reward for doing a task, over time, people will need greater and greater rewards to do the same thing. In the long-run, the reward actually demotivates them.
Rewards also demotivate in another very important way. We're intelligent creatures and we can tell when someone is trying to motivate us to do something that we wouldn't otherwise care about. "If they have to give us a reward to do this, this is probably something crappy that I don't want to do." So the reward has actually demeaned the task and taken away any inherent motivation that may have been there naturally.
So getting back to the article: "parents wanted them to have the experience of receiving a trophy". Over time that "experience" of success without doing the requisite work has the potential to demotivate the kids and potentially make them dislike the very activity that we want them to do.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't seem like a big deal to hand out a participation trophy and it may seem like there are "no untoward effects". The problem is the long-term deleterious effects of this "reward" culture. Those far outweigh the possible short-term "feel good" benefits.
So how do we get kids to enjoy the activities and get the most out of them?
The most important way is to allow them to develop an intrinsic motivation for the activity. An intrinsic motivation is one that comes from inside you, as opposed to an extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside. Reading a textbook because I know I have a test coming up is extrinsic motivation; reading science-fiction because I love the genre is intrinsic motivation. One good way to have kids develop intrinsic motivation is to not force them to try to be good at everything they do...
I feel bad for the author because he explained that he was made to feel like s--- playing sports while growing up. I am not advocating that we return to that mentality. I grew up in the same environment and in spite of the fact that I didn't have participation trophies, I loved my time playing sports. I wasn't the most athletic guy growing up, so I didn't win a ton of trophies for my sports prowess. From as early as I can remember, my parents emphasized that I should try everything. They put me in little league baseball, youth basketball, bowling, swimming, martial arts... You name it and I probably tried it as a kid!
I wasn't expected to succeed at everything, but I had to give my best effort. I remember getting some 3rd place ribbons in swimming before everyone else had their growth spurts, but that's about it. I remember my Mom telling me that I won't know what I'm good at unless I try a bunch of stuff. As I've heard before: "You learn from failing and getting back up; but you learn nothing from being perfect." So, sports for me was about getting out there, having a good time, and trying my best. Sure, I envied all those big championship trophies, but that drove me to want to work harder and also to find my specialty. I loved getting out there and having a blast with my teammates. More importantly, I learned to really enjoy playing sports for the fun of it. There was no pressure; there was only the potential for upside!
I won my first sports championship as an adult, playing for a recreational co-ed softball team! (And I cherish that trophy!) To this day, I still jump at opportunities to go out and play sports. The funny thing is my love of sports and physical endeavor got me started on the path of fitness. It's through fitness that I found one of my talents and it's also through fitness that I found my wife.
Finding that internal motivation for kids is also about the attitude that we as adults have. If we show a genuine interest in sports and in our kids’ activities, they see it and get it. I’m not saying that we should fawn all over them and act like they’re the second coming of Michael Jordan. Rather, pay attention and let them know that we saw them doing a good job out there (when they really did do a good job out there!) instead of spending the game on our phones. Kids pay attention to everything and it’s those little incidental comments that make a world of difference in their lives, more than some cheap plastic trophy. I knew when my dad told me I did great, it meant that I was, because he also let me know when I wasn’t trying my hardest.
Kids are looking for love and encouragement, not disingenuous praise. Let the job well done be its own reward.
And that speaks to my final point: nothing can replace a parent's love. One of the reasons we are even having this conversation is partly because parents oftentimes feel guilty for not spending enough time with their kids. We live in a hectic crazy world with all sorts of demands for our time. Know that as a parent, every decision we make will either lead to a self-confident, well-adapted child or to one who isn't. There are no shortcuts. (It’s one of the reasons why so far, I have chosen to not have kids.) And handing out a little trophy may make us feel less guilty, but it doesn't necessarily help our kids.
A trophy will never be anything more than a momentary pleasure. But a parent's influence will last forever. Recognize that influence and appreciate the responsibility that comes with it. If we as a society do that, we will all be tremendously better off.
Agree? Disagree? Either way, join the conversation and use #unsteadystate! It's only through open discussions that we can move forward as a society... If you enjoy the conversation, please share away!