Nice Try!

08.22.14

My Loser Kid Should Get a Trophy

Of course children shouldn’t always get a prize for participating. But despite a new poll showing a majority think ‘only winners’ should be rewarded, the ‘good job’ medal isn’t all bad.

My 4-year-old is starting soccer in the fall. Now, I don’t care how good he is at the sport. Win or lose, that kid’s coming home with a trophy.

This idea that we should reward children for merely trying their best? The majority of people are over it, according to a poll released this week by Reason-Rupe. An estimated 57 percent said “only winners” should receive a trophy for their participation in kids’ sports.

The poll also found that the more adults win at life, the more likely they are to want to keep the spoils of victory out of the hands of losers. The desire to withhold participation trophies increased with income, age, and education. While 55 percent of those making less than $30,000 a year came out in favor of participation trophies, only 23 percent of those at the top of the income food chain at $110,000 wanted trophies for all.

It’s not so surprising that groups were divided on political lines as well, and the further right respondents leaned, the less they were keen on prizes solely for participation. Progressives and liberals were most ready to hand them out, with 53 percent saying they should only go to winners. By contrast, 63 percent of conservatives and a whopping 80 percent of libertarians said only winners should get the prizes. Men also favored trophies for winners only over women, 62 to 52 percent.

People are really passionate about this trophy business. Because I couldn’t figure out what is so distasteful about a child getting a “good job” medal, I consulted the great explainer. And the argument, as far as I can tell from Google, goes that these baubles are the non-merit badges of the overly coddled “self-esteem generation”—that good-for-little pack who came of age in a time when everyone (and therefore no one) won. All this back patting, people say, has made our children lazy and created a sense of entitlement. It’s killed competition and produced a generation of young adults who can’t get into college or even apply for a job without help from mom. If this madness isn’t stopped, the children who win trophies for diddly today will be the leaders who capitulate to China (or Russia, or wherever) tomorrow.

Glenn Beck is all over it. And as a rich, white, conservative man, the syndicated radio host is, according to the poll data, probably most representative of the “trophies aren’t for losers” crowd.

“I hate those damn participation trophies,” he said on his show in 2013. Indeed, the attaboy statues are so loathsome to Beck that he instructs parents to go into their children’s bedrooms and confiscate them to teach the kids a little lesson about how the real world works.

“Then together, father and son, smash the hell out of that trophy,” because “you don’t get a trophy for being a loser on the team,” he said.

So, does Beck, whom I can’t help but imagine leading his own pee wee football-playing son into the garage for a Saturday night trophy-bashing, have a point?

Elie Mystal at Above the Law thinks so. He echoed Beck’s sentiment on participation trophies, in a especially melodramatic blog post that warned: “Participation trophies ruin lives. They create a false sense of accomplishment that tells kids to be proud of mediocrity at the very time they should be learning important lessons about dealing with failure and overcoming setbacks.”

I don’t know about Mystal, but my son faces failure all the time. When mommy hits him with a Soooorry!™ and unapologetically sends his pawn to Start, it stings. Tears have been shed when our adult brains best his for the hundredth time at The Memory Game. And though I won’t hypothesize on his athletic aptitude here, I have good reason to expect he’s got a lot of losing ahead of him.

“Eventually, you have an 8-year-old who finishes a book and says, ‘What do I get?’”

Sending him home empty-handed at the end of a hard-fought season won’t help him learn the lesson of losing, it will teach him early that there’s no value in the attempt. As a grown-up, in the real world, I think there’s something to that old Woody Allen line about success being 80 percent showing up.

Most participation trophies are given to the pee wees, the tiny tots, the youngest players who will probably escape with their Ivy League futures intact and perhaps a sense of accomplishment for other qualities that we still appreciate—like just giving something a go even though you may not be any good, sportsmanship, teamwork, losing with grace, and finding joy in an endeavor, even when you know you won’t be the best. Leaving with a symbol of those things can’t be so bad.

For now, I’m on team participation, but I probably won’t be forever. Once kids hit grade school, and start to understand their own abilities and limitations, experts say the shine dulls on participation trophies.

I talked with Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociologist and author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She told me that the trophy movement started after World War II, around the time the for-profit world took over organized athletic competitions from public schools and organizations like the Police Athletic League. A backlash against competition led by California’s self-esteem movement put sports into the hands of private organizations. Awards quickly became part of the package, and by the ’90s we had hit peak trophy.

“As participation trophies have proliferated, they’ve lost a lot of their meaning,” Friedman said.

Speaking about the poll, Friedman noted that while parents are wise to the general worthlessness of participation trophies, “the kids are even savvier. The first trophy means something, even if it’s just a participation trophy. It’s very exciting, and all the kids I studied remembered the circumstances from the first trophy they got. But very quickly, these participation trophies lose their meaning unless it’s for a really big win.”

Moreover, Friedman said the more we teach our children to rely on external motivation from objects like trophies, the greater risk we run of undermining the very values we hope to instill. “Eventually,” she said, “you have an 8-year-old who finishes a book and says, ‘What do I get?’”

But 8 is a long way off for my kid, and there’s plenty of disappointment ahead. In the meantime, he’s getting on the field and he’s getting a trophy just for showing up.