Every parent of a child involved in a sports team in the last 20 years knows the feeling of having to block out at least two hours in their schedule when a coach drops those two words: Awards Day. What used to be a short and sweet ceremony has turned into an affair. Reason being: whether a kid is his or her team's captain — a talented soccer or baseball player whom colleges will one day court — or a player who can barely kick the ball, there's a shiny participation trophy out there with their name on it.
Blame helicopter parenting. Point your fingers at parents from affluent communities who insist their children "master" many activities, whether they actually possess any talent in them (or even care to try to excel at them) or not. Whatever the reason, Dr. Leonard Sax, author of four books for parents — most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Collapse of Parenting — says the bottom line is that participation trophies or ribbons can be harmful, sometimes in unexpected ways.
"Some children, especially boys, are motivated by competition," Sax says. "Participation trophies, or ribbons, may undermine the motivation of those boys."
Sax explains how a parent recently told him about her son’s experience in second grade. "The gym teacher had announced that there would be a big race one week from Friday," Sax says. "All the students would run four times around the school track. This boy took the challenge very seriously. He began training. Every day, at recess and at lunch, he would run around the track. Then, finally, the big day arrived. It was time for the race. 'Ready, set, go!' This boy ran as hard as he could and he came in second out of the 35 kids. He was very happy about that result – until the teacher gave every student a 'first place' ribbon. He came home in tears, tears of anger. 'The teacher tricked us!' he complained to his parents. 'The teacher said it was going to be a real race. I’m never going to run a race again!'"
Sax says there may be a short-term boost in engagement in children when they realize they receive praise just for trying their best, but it doesn't last. And, as he explains with his example, children as young as 7 can see through an adult's attempt at honoring accomplishments they or their peers didn't actually earn.
Sax began his private practice in 1989 and says he noticed the participation trophy trend growing in popularity in the early '90s, coinciding with what he calls "the self-esteem movement."
"Many parents bought into the notion that boosting self-esteem in children had enormous benefits and was an existential good to be pursued for its own sake," Sax says. "That's when parents began saying ‘good job’ when their 6-year-old got dressed for school without help. I remember very well the push to boost every child's self-esteem. It seemed reasonable enough at the time, 20 years ago."
The practice was still going strong up until the mid-2000s but has actually lost ground in recent years — because science doesn't support it.
"In the 2000s, when psychologists such as Professor Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge took a closer look at it all, it became clear that simply inflating self-esteem, without kids actually earning the trophy, doesn't lead to better outcomes," Sax says. "Too often, it leads to narcissism and a bloated sense of entitlement. As the work of Twenge, Baumeister, Dweck and others has become more widely known, many school leaders and others have backed off the push to inflate self-esteem by any means, without regard to effort. But other school leaders, especially in affluent neighborhoods, don't seem to have gotten that memo."
It's important to remember a child's cultural and economic background has a lot to do with whether this trend still holds sway in their community. Sax says there is considerable regional variation in the practice of doling out participation trophies. "It is most common in affluent communities where most families speak English at home," he says. "It is less common in rural areas, low-income neighborhoods, and in communities where many families do not speak English at home."
No matter what side of the participation trophy debate you're on, everyone wants the best for their kids — and if science and research continue to prove that being rewarded for doing very little is not beneficial to a child, it may be time for all schools and teams to think twice about what they're trying to achieve with the practice.
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