There's nothing wrong with rewarding kids with participation trophies

Apr 9, 2015 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Image: Steve Debenport/E+/Getty Images

Spring sportsball season is upon us, and with it inevitably comes the diatribes against trophies and medals handed out to kids who don't win. People claim these pseudo-awards breed entitlement and narcissism. I'm pretty sure they're missing the point.

I twirled baton in elementary school. I would like to give a more kick-ass example, but I'm afraid this represents the height of my athletic achievement in life. At the end of my second year, our team competed in some sort of local tournament, performing a routine we built on from week to week. We didn't win anything at all, but at the end of the night we each got a shiny trophy. And I was proud! Not because I thought I had actually won something — teams and individuals that placed received far more substantial trophies — but because I worked and practiced and learned and had a tangible souvenir to show for it.

Can someone tell me why this is a bad thing? Because I don't get it.

Some might say the skills and experience were souvenir enough. I submit to them that my baton twirling talents are far less shiny and not at all fit for public display 30 years later. The trophy is still pretty neat, though.

Participation trophies and their ilk — ribbons, medals, certificates — serve as recognition. That's all they are. I promise you, most children are fully aware that they didn't actually win something. It's fairly easy to realize you aren't a special snowflake when everyone around you gets the same thing.

I've seen parents and not-yet-parents ranting all over the internet about how they won't allow participation trophies in their homes. They will make sure their kids know they didn't earn them. They sound like super fun people.

The thing is, sometimes in life you do get rewarded for showing up. Sometimes showing up is the whole point of the thing. Sometimes showing up every single time and seeing something through to the end can be its own accomplishment. Life gives children lots of opportunities to keep score, to win and lose and envy and boast. Must that be the case for everything they ever do? Is that really what life as an adult looks like?

Because last time I checked, you 20- and 30-somethings whining about "back in my day" — P.S. I'm older than you, participation trophies were a thing in your day, swearsies — they give these out to everyone who completes a local 5k or half marathon.

Participation medal

Image: Myrtle Beach TheDigitel/Flickr

I hear they give them to people who walk. To people who aren't even close to placing. To the person who comes in last, even. Yet no one is throwing a fit in their end-of-race Instagram selfie comments, alleging that they didn't earn that medal. Is there something I'm missing that makes this different from every kid getting a ribbon at the end of swim season? Why does it translate to ruin for today's youth but justifiable pride for adults?

Don't get me wrong — a real first-place trophy holds far more meaning than any token award of completion. But children know this. They can tell one from the other. They don't need adults going Condescending Wonka on them, reminding them they aren't actually winners. Recent studies show self-esteem, particularly that of our daughters, plummets as children hit puberty. Let them have the damn participation trophies, society will knock the ego out of them before you know it.

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