The Participation Trophy Debate

Is a Participation Trophy a way of motivating children — or devaluing achievement?

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen the emergence of a modern trend that emphasizes positive reinforcement in sports. The result? Kids in many activities have begun bringing home awards, trophies and ribbons simply for participating in an activity or on a team. Is rewarding a child for simply showing up sending the wrong message — or is it a team-building and esteem-building tool?

By Jillian Chamberlain

The great Participation Trophy Debate received renewed attention last month when James Harrison, a professional NFL player for the Pittsburg Steelers, posted a photo on his Instagram account stating that he was going to have his two sons return the participation trophies that they had received. Harrison had the following to say in his Instagram comment:

The post garnered scorn from trophy supporters, who argue that participation trophies remind young kids that they are part of something, and they may help build enthusiasm so the kids will return for another season. The trophies, some feel, are along the lines of the team T-shirt and car magnet — a pleasant reminder (especially during the off-season) of time well-spent.

Others argue that there are different ways of accomplishing camaraderie, while still awarding only excellence or unique achievements like, say, most improved player. Team pizza parties and post-game gatherings can be held to honor the team for their collective accomplishment. Such gatherings remind kids that their effort is valued, regardless of ability or results.

Rewarding children for for their participation and effort certainly is important — just think how you’d feel if your boss didn’t care whether or not you showed up to work or, worse, how hard you tried to do well at your job. But should everyone get an actual trophy? Or should certain awards be reserved only for those who are exceptional? Or are physical trophies and awards not necessary (or desirable) at all?

To be sure, many coaches, instructors and teachers have strong opinions on the subject. And many parents take matters into their own hands, as Harrison did, if they disagree.

One thing, though, that almost everyone can agree on — kids deserve to stretch their legs and their minds, to enjoy more friend-time and less screen-time, and to find a fun activity or two to rejuvenate them. Help your child find a class or activity that they are passionate about: Check out the thousands of activity listings that we have in your area!  If you like, you can give yourself a gold star for checking us out — or not. It’s really up to you!

5 replies on “The Participation Trophy Debate”

I struggle with what to do with the trophies months (years) later. In our baseball league, we usually have a pizza party & the coach says something nice to each kid & gives them a trophy. That part is really nice, I don’t really have a problem with it. It’s the dusty shelf of old trophies (and/or upset when I try to clear it off) that I find challenging.

I think the participation trophy syndrome is , in my opinion, a problem for kids down the road. I really wish we could draw a line for those obstacles that were surpassed, or challenges that were met/exceeded, or goals that were met/exceeded, that were REALLY worth a trophy. Just participating?? There is much to be said for experiencing disappointment, and understand what that REALLY felt like. AND, there’s an incredible feeling that a kid has when he/she REALLY accomplishes something big. Wouldn’t we want our kids experiencing this, to help them tackle the bigger things in life?

I don’t think I’m a fan of participation trophies, but I am a fan of participation prizes. I think a trophy is a symbol that loses it’s meaning if everyone gets it, but if participants get a prize different than the prize for winning it’s the best of both worlds. Some hobby games do a great job of this. All participants get a prize for attending an event, and a different prize each event encourages attendance each event. A better prize is given to the winner, so they still get the satisfaction of winning.

Participation certificate makes a lot of sense to me. You want to encourage the kids to participate. But trophies is going the other extreme. You are giving them a message that just by participating and without putting in any effort, you can win a trophy. I can see kids going around participating without putting in any effort, just to collect trophies. The meaning of trophies, working hard, putting in your best, is completely lost!

It depends on how old you are. For younger kids, it’s fun when everyone gets something for participating. Older kids get excited about being more competitive.

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