As parents we all want the best for our children. We want them to try their best and as we encourage their efforts. We want them to be successful and well-rounded. We want them to have a sense of accomplishment as we build up their self-esteem. We want them to dream big and believe that all things are possible with hard work. We applaud their participation and we reward their efforts – but are we doing so at an unforeseen cost if we do not balance out all of this positive with lessons regarding disappointment and the fact that sometimes your best will not be good enough? There is a very hot-button issue currently online regarding Steelers linebacker James Harrison stripping his children of their “participation trophies”. His actions have sparked a much heated online debate in which people are weighing in to voice their opinions.
From personal experience, my younger son received a participation trophy for playing flag football. While he was thrilled, I was less than happy, mainly because he did not complete the season. In fact he was so ambivalent to the experience that he would only participate in the practices, refusing to play in any games. He wouldn’t even sit on the bench in support of his teammates. His lousy attitude made it necessary for me to remove him from the team. This was very difficult for me as there were two lessons I had hope to instill within him. The first was the lesson of commitment – that being, you finish what you start, especially when others are depending on you. If at the end of the season he chose not to play the next year then that was fine because he had finished what he had committed to. The second lesson was that just because things were hard didn’t mean you could just quit and move on. Life doesn’t work like that and I didn’t want to be raising a quitter who never gave things a chance or saw them through just because “they were hard.” Despite my best efforts both lessons seemed to fall on little deaf ears. And to add insult to injury, at the end of the season when we went to the awards assembly in support of my older son who also played and was being recognized for his participation; to my utter shock, (and embarrassment) when they got to my younger son’s team his name was called out to receive a trophy for participating. Now in addition to failing to complete the season, he was being rewarded for it. And to make matters worse, he was grinning from ear to ear and so happy that he got his first trophy for “playing”. What message was this sending to my child? As a parent I felt it sent the completely wrong one.
As a parent who is speaking solely from my own personal experiences regarding my children, I am wary of participation trophies. In fact I am wary of any participation awards as I am concerned they will and have already have created a sense of entitlement with my children. More often than not it seems as if my children are looking for a tangible reward for their efforts rather than recognizing that doing their best should be enough for foster a sense of pride and accomplishment. I worry based off of what I have already witnessed, that my children don’t know how to handle simple disappointments because of the constant mentality that “everyone’s a winner.” Case in point, board games often result in meltdowns when one of them truly wins and the other one does not. The reality of life is that not everyone can be a winner; that even when you do your best, your best might not be good enough to prevail in certain circumstances. How will my children handle the rejections that life has in store for them if they are under the misguided notion that just showing up is good enough?
I personally believe that there needs to be a balance between rewarding my children at those times deemed appropriate while still ensuring that they are prepared to handle life’s challenges and disappointments. I also believe that if my children are handed things in their life that they will be unable to truly appreciate what comes from hard work. And finally, I believe that it is life’s disappointments that can offer my children the best lessons by challenging them to try harder, to refocus their vision, and re-evaluate the direction in which they are looking to aspire.