In Defense of Participation Trophies


There’s a note hanging on the refrigerator from my daughter’s teacher. It’s about how she has worked well in a group, helped other students, and been a pleasure to have in class.  Actually, that’s not entirely true. There are three nearly identical notes from her teacher.

You would think Olivia would be ecstatic over this, but that would be an overstatement.  She opens her school bag and hands them to us like they’re just another piece of paper from her day.

They’re just from homework bingo.

Homework bingo is when students in her class finish all their homework from the week.  They write their names on pieces of paper and the teacher picks winners at random. Those winners could choose to bring in a stuffed animal, skip a night of homework, spend the day without shoes on (?), or have a nice note sent home.

So yeah. Technically, she didn’t really earn them, although one can argue that the information provided on them is totally accurate.  She did work well in a group and help others.  While good to see her work acknowledged, we’re all aware that this note was something that wouldn’t have been sent if she wasn’t picked out of a proverbial hat. Yet she still chooses them over shoeless days and stuffed dolls at her desk.

trophyThey’re a lot like participation trophies.  You know, those things that you’re warned are killing today’s youth.  From my understanding prior to having children, participation trophies took away any desire for kids to win or lose. Instead, they gave everyone the same prize for doing unequal work.

Of course, like most things we’re told prior to experiencing them first hand, this turned out to be exaggerated for effect.  Sure there are extreme examples, but that holds true for anything. The only “participation trophy” Olivia ever received was for playing basketball. She got a small little plastic statue that would fit in in a shoebox.  The kids who won the championship?  They got a trophy you could beat an elephant to death with. That eliminates the whole “all kids get equal treatment” point. There was nothing equal about the prizes that day.

That must mean that my daughter thought her trophy symbolized a big victory, right?  Wrong. She looked at that basketball trophy the same way that she looks at the notes from homework bingo.  It’s nice to get and a good memory of the time she spent playing, but she’s aware that there are other kids out there massacring elephants with their awards.  She’s under no delusion that this means she actually won. She knows she didn’t win.

I know what you might be thinking.

James, you’re only saying this because you never received a trophy playing sports.

I only had one opportunity to do so. It was little league.  I only played one season.

…and my team won the championship.  Yup.  The whole thing.  Guess what else.  I sucked at baseball. Like embarrassingly.

In other words, I was given a giant trophy for simply being surrounded by great players.  I did so little for that team that it’s not even funny.  Yet, when the prizes came around, I somehow “earned” a major award while the top kid on a lesser team went home empty handed.  According to the old school mentality, I deserved it for eating combos in the dugout and ranking on kids’ moms for three hours every Saturday. That sounds like the opposite of fair, no?

The final reason you might be mentally citing against participation trophies is that it doesn’t prepare kids for life.  In life, after all, no one gets participation trophies.

That’s right. There are no participation trophies. That’s because there are no trophies.  You get paid money.  That’s your trophy.  The people who win get a giant paycheck. Those who don’t get a smaller paycheck.  There are almost no scenarios in adulthood where you are expected to work with no acknowledgement or reward for your labor.

Even in sports, where most of the participation trophy ire is directed, they never send players home without pay.  That would make for a hell of a post-season.

A big win for the Yankees this year.  Unfortunately it looks like there are going to be a lot of homeless players in the next few months, Chet.  We don’t give participation paychecks here in the Major Leagues.

Kids today aren’t as coddled as you might think.  They’re also not kidding themselves.  When they lose, they know it.  A tiny trophy might soften the blow, but no one is pretending that’s the top prize and no one is denying the winners their chance in the spotlight.  In many ways, it prepares kids for life.  It shows them that when you work at something, you get rewarded.  But when you win at something, you get rewarded bigger.  That’s a much more realistic life lesson than the old, “Sorry, kid. You’re ten and suck at soccer. See you next spring.”

We all like to show other people we earned something for working hard.  Whether it’s a note that you know your teacher is partially writing under duress or a golden basketball that couldn’t wound an elephant, it’s always nice to know you’re appreciated. If we do enough of that, it might encourage those who didn’t win to come back for another try.  You might earn an even bigger reward. That’s what childhood is all about, right? Heck, that’s what life is all about.

If you want kids who are prepared for adulthood, you should treat them like adults. Participation trophies aren’t the downfall of our society. They’re the basis of our society. Unless you’re willing to give up your paycheck because you’re not “employee of the month”, you can’t claim it’s not.