Should We Say No to Participation Trophies?

Participation trophies… to give ’em or not give ’em, is that really the question?

Who knew that Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, James Harrison, would ignite such a firestorm with his Instagram posting stating his intention to return the “participation trophies” awarded to his two young boys until they “earned” them?

Harrison trophies

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

It has garnered thousands of comments and launched a frenzy of editorials. One online spin-off has asked us to vote, yes or no:

Yes, kids should earn awards, not have them handed out
No, there is nothing wrong with a participation trophy.

Well, I’m not sure a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ covers it. While I am not a fan of handing kids a trophy just for showing up, I do think it’s fine to help kids mark their first efforts into sports, or arts, or music, or whatever, with something tangible. I still remember sleeping with my very first swimming trophy under my pillow the night after I received it.

Did I earn it?  Well, it signified I made a contribution. You only got one if you scored any points for the team that season. Maybe I had a few third place finishes that summer which garnered a point or two. It seems right to acknowledge a positive contribution with a memento of some sort.

Does this start kids thinking they are entitled to shiny rewards after every season just because they sign up. I don’t think so, although maybe parents expect their entry fee pays for the end of season auto-trophy. Some parents use them as bribes to get their kids to play.

But if it’s a problem, it’s an adult problem – or at least one of our own making. We have gotten so used to trophy rewards, we may not consider the message they send or the image they portray. Not to mention that, in order to top last year’s trophy, we have to go bigger or more detailed, or get really creative with the design.

Clearly, the folks who are making out in this deal are the awards-dealers who are laughing all the way to the bank. We, the compliant parents, are simply shelling out the funds for an end of year party, tossing in a few bucks for a cheap plastic token and a 10 spot for the coach’s gift card.

So, do we need to “reward” our kids for playing sports? I don’t think so. Hopefully, the experience they had the first season was so much fun, they want to play again. But a memento of the season, the teammates and the coach, is a nice touch. There are lots of ways to do that. Let’s think outside the trophy box: Here are some great trophy-alternatives:

  1. A nylon cleat bag in club colors with team name on the side
  2. Neon colored laces or brightly-colored soccer socks
  3. A “sweet spot” or similar gadget they can use next time they play
  4. A photo or a photo t-shirt signed by players and coaches
  5. Paper plate “award” designed and decorated by teammates, parents and/or coaches
  6. A personalized note written by coach detailing the positives of the kid and their hopes for the seasons to come.

2012-10-27_07-22-34_226 (2)My kids, having now aged out of youth sports and activities, were more than happy to clear out those boxes of dusty statues and plaques. We donated them to a local second-hand store.

To be sure, some of these figurines were of the “participation” variety, but many were hard-earned and well deserved representations of accomplishment, valor, and success. The honest evaluation and recognition they signified is what the kids will carry with them. The trophies have been replaced by symbolic memorabilia signifying new accomplishments and accolades: diplomas and professional certifications. Trophies of a different sort.

So, should kids get participation trophies?

Not when something else will do, and certainly not just because everyone else is getting them. Though sending them back just to make a point may be a bit much when you’re only 6 or 8 years old and your Dad’s a pro football star.

After all, every kid tries to live up to their parent’s expectations. The Harrison boys have some very large shoes to fill. I’m wondering how do you “earn” a trophy at that house?

Comments are closed.