When James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers returned participation trophies given to his 6 and 8 year old children “until they earn a real trophy,” it re-ignited a debate about participation trophies that has lingered ever since the invention of participation trophies.
Parents and psychologists took to Newsweek, The New York Times and CNN to either expound the virtues of participation trophies or attack them as just one more way society is creating a generation of narcissistic underachievers who expect rewards just for being.
Empty Praise is Harmful to Children
The folks against participation awards cite research showing that when children receive empty praise, it does more harm than good. Carol Dweck’s well-regarded work on Mindset, emphasizes that empty praise focuses on what children ARE, rather than the specific effort required to achieve something. It is the difference between praising a fact that a child is innately smart, talented, or athletic and praising the practice and persistence a given result takes. Children who are praised for innate abilities tend to become frustrated when actually faced with something difficult because they were misled into thinking their natural abilities would carry them.
A child who receives a participation trophy may be confused into thinking that he or she does not need to do any work. In other words, if just being there is enough to receive an award no matter what, then there is no incentive to improve. Even if participation trophies are given for “effort,” the non-specific nature of the praise does not help children to recognize what exactly they did well and would need to continue doing to improve.
Winning Isn’t the Only Thing
The people who support participation trophies say that awarding only the “winners” communicates a misguided message about why children should participate in sports. If only winners receive trophies, then children learn that winning takes precedence above sportsmanship, team camaraderie, the value of exercise and countless other good reasons to participate in sports. Withholding trophies from all but “winners” reinforces the view that in order to win, someone else must lose and that winning and losing are the only things worth paying attention to.
Children have mixed views about participation trophies as well. Highlights Magazine’s “The State of the Kid’ 2015” survey asked children ages 6 -12, “When you are playing sports, do you think everyone should get a trophy or just the winners?” The majority of children wanted the trophy, but when the results were broken down by ages, only 48% of the 11-12 year olds felt that everyone deserved a trophy. Kids on both sides of the argument cited fairness and hard work as justifications for their positions, just as adults do.
No Research Exists on the Long-Term Effects of Trophies
However, an exhaustive search turned up no research on the long-term effects of participation trophies or the more important question about why kids think they are receiving those trophies. Do children consider the trophy a memento of their time with the team? Do they believe it is an actual award for hard work? When children receive a participation award, do they actually believe they have won? Is a participation trophy a form of “praise”?
My own children have more than a few participation medals and awards. When I asked them why they thought they had been given the awards, they shrugged and said, “I don’t know, being part of the team, I guess.”
My children are not necessarily representative of a whole generation of children, but they definitely had no misconception that their trophies and medals meant that they had won or were innately good at anything. My teenager (who hasn’t received a participation trophy since 2nd grade) has not had his work ethnic ruined or his ego inflated. He works hard academically and on the sports field. My 9 year old, who recently received his own words, his “first real medal, that was for winning, not just being” showed that he knew the difference between the two awards by having each of his stuffed animals model the medal. But then the next day he put the medal away, on the shelf with all of his other – participation – awards.
Interestingly, Alfie Kohn, one of the most vocal educators opposing empty praise and extrinsic rewards, wrote a 2014 New York Times op-ed criticizing the idea that giving trophies to everyone is creating a generation of coddled, egotistical children. While he is not a proponent of throwing trophies at everything children do, he sees them as mostly innocuous.
Kohn believes that children absolutely know when they have not won, and that a mere trophy does not make them think that failing is just as good as succeeding. He feels that the attacks against participation trophies rest on unsubstantiated beliefs about “what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards), and what produces excellence (competition).” None of these beliefs are research-based.
Children do not need participation trophies to enjoy sports or to excel at them, and probably should not be taught to expect an award for every experience they have. However, in the long run, a memento of time spent with a team will not cause harm or be the sole reason a child decides whether or not to expend energy in a particular activity.