Op-Ed: An argument for participation trophies

Participation trophies: those things you used to collect at the end of a pizza party with your whole team at the end of a season to signal that you made it through the season. Win, lose, or draw—you did it. 

In the past couple decades, since they were conceived, there has been lots of debate on the subject of participation trophies. Some have argued that giving everyone a trophy creates lazy, entitled children, while others argue that it’s important to help kids develop high self-esteem and that positive reinforcement is good. I’m among the latter. 

Young children are developing skills that they carry with them throughout their entire lives, and they are learning how to do fundamental things like cooperate and be part of a collective. This is why it is important to build them up during their development and reward them for things as simple as participating. Because when it comes down to it, participating isn’t always easy, and it’s a crucial part of your life. Showing up when you don’t have to is something that separates the hardworking from the slackers and the successful from the not. At a time when children are learning how to be people, shouldn’t we positively reinforce the idea of participating? Because, as Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.” Being a part of something and working together with other kids for an entire season is something that should be rewarded and celebrated. 

I would also argue that unconditional support is a good thing for children to receive from the adults in their lives, and it sets them up with greater self-esteem and confidence. Many say that we have to ready our children for the disappointments of real life. But really, why? I don’t believe lessons in disappointment better equip someone to handle them than a foundation of support and high self-esteem does. Educational Theorist Alfie Kohn emphasizes the point that, “We’re left wondering why it would help to be brought down to Earth even before one had the chance to soar.” 

Studies also show that receiving positive reinforcement for something other than the outcome gives kids more confidence and keeps them more engaged. In a study by Cornell University, a group of children were given tests and then were praised either for being smart or working hard. They then later offered the groups a choice for the second test—either an easier test or one that would be “more difficult but presented an opportunity to learn.” It turns out that a majority of the kids praised for being smart went for the easier test, while 92% of the kids praised for working hard chose the harder one. This is evidence that kids should be supported regardless of the outcome, because they are still learning the process of work. When you’re older, you have plenty of opportunities to be rewarded for being the best, fastest, strongest, or whatever. But the only way to get there is to have the skills to be on a team, to stick it out, to work together, to enjoy the game, and to be praised for your work enough that you’re inspired to go home and practice. And that needs to come earlier. 

Participating in sports, whether you are good or bad, is also generally good for your wellbeing. Studies have shown that kids who participate in sports have better grades, are more likely to go to college, have lower dropout rates, and more. So all kids should be encouraged and supported to do these activities, and I guarantee that a kid who is having a good time and feeling comfortable is going to put in the effort to do better. People grow best in healthy environments, and while there might very well be some slacker kid who doesn’t work all year but still gets a trophy, that’s okay, because there’s always that person in life, and it doesn’t take away from anyone else’s accomplishments. Executive director of the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, Tom Farrey, said that participation trophies build enthusiasm, which is a large part of the goal in early sports. “From ages 0 to 12, the goal is to help kids fall in love with sports, to want to come back the next year,” he said. “There is a time and a place to sort out the weak from the strong, but it is not before they grow into their bodies and their minds and their interests.”

Similar to Mr. Rogers’ theories on children and kindness, I believe that children should be praised and supported without having to do anything at all, because children should feel special and be supported unconditionally so that they can grow up kind and good and know to be nice to themselves. They should be told in a multitude of words and actions that, as Mr. Rogers’ said, “You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world… And people can like you exactly as you are.” 

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