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Participation Trophies: Harmless Token or Detriment to Society?


It’s one of the great parenting conundrums of our time: to proudly display your child’s participation trophy on the shelf or to scornfully toss it into the trash?

The internet was recently ablaze over Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison’s social media posts dissing participation trophies, and that got me thinking about the value (or lack thereof) of these little faux gold and wood statuettes that are routinely doled out to every kid on the team at the end of every sports season.

“These trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy,” Harrison wrote of how he was handling his young sons’ trophies. I kind of feel Harrison’s pain since we are getting deep into the organized sports thing and amassing quite a collection of these things.

Seriously, do kids need to be handed a trophy just for playing on a team? No. Will these trophies slowly start to erode my child’s drive to succeed and stifle her sense of competition? I don’t really think so. Are they a nice way to commemorate the soccer season? Sure.

My daughter has played for two seasons now, which means she has two soccer trophies which will, undoubtedly, have another friend soon join them on the bookshelf. I haven’t taken the Harrison route and returned the trophies, or sat down and explained to my daughter that they’re meaningless and that she didn’t really deserve one just for showing up to her games.

I’m pretty sure she gets that the trophies are not an award for some outstanding work she did on the field. She realizes she’s not the team MVP. She knows who the best players on the team are, and that she’s not one of them. Right now—at age 7—she enjoys running around and being with her friends at the practices and games. And if she actually touches the ball with her foot during a game, even better!

So, handing out a memento of the season is a nice sentiment, but maybe the league could consider giving a certificate that we could post on the fridge for a week or so before filing away in a scrapbook. I would greatly prefer that to a 3-dimensional trinket that overcrowds the bookshelf and collects dust. I guess I’m against these trophies more from a minimalist, anti-consumerist perspective than I’m against them for turning my daughter into a whiny, entitled brat, as some commentators suggest.

This season, my daughter’s coach is starting a new thing where he will assign the players skills to master, and when they do, they will earn—yes EARN—soccer ball patches to put on their uniforms. I imagine that these patches will mean a lot more to the players than the trophies because the patches are not arbitrarily handed out to everyone; they will be given when the child deserves them for for mastering skills, and they can truly feel proud of that accomplishment.

When it comes down to it, I think adults may be overthinking the participation trophy debate a bit. When a young child is handed one of these, I think he or she just thinks it’s a cool thing to put on the dresser to remind them of happy times playing a game they enjoy. I don’t think the trophies are burrowing deep into the collective unconscious of the next generation, robbing them of their work ethic, and encouraging them to be satisfied with their own special-ness.

If we parents push our kids to go beyond their comfort zones to do their best, teach them the true meaning of accomplishment, praise them when they truly deserve it, and don’t shelter them from the disappointment of defeat, then they will learn some real life lessons that can’t be summed up with a trophy.

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