Wednesday, August 3, 2016

In Defense of Participation Trophies

    To be completely honest, this is a bit of a procrastination post. I'm trying to get through a book I just don't want to read. But I have been meaning to write this up for a while; it just wasn't high up on my priority list. So, participation trophies. I didn't realize they had somehow become symbolic of all that is wrong with children today, but judging my the memes and jokes about them they are somehow indicative of supposed modern day entitlement.

 So yeah, apparently people have some strong feelings about participation trophies. But I have equally strong feelings in the other direction. First, I would like to suggest that what many of these attitudes are calling "entitlement" are actually mislabeled recognition. Is your son entitled to first place because he tried his best? No. Does your son deserve recognition for his effort? Yes. One of the best ways I can think to frame it is with an interaction I had with a child last week. I recently started teaching swimming lessons, and when I was training with a new class, the first thing a child said to me after I introduced myself was "Yeah....I'm not the best swimmer." He said this with a dejected tone as he looked down at his feet, as if warning me of his lack of ability. And I felt sad. These are swim lessons. If you were awesome at swimming you wouldn't be here. But also, and this is what I told the child, by definition there can be only one best swimmer. We collectively as as class determined it was probably Michael Phelps. And the child perked right up. And he tried his best and got better at skills he will continue to work on.

This is my problem main with hating on participation trophies- the inherent lesson is that effort is only worth anything if you are the best. There are 7 billion people on this planet- chances are you aren't going to be the best at anything. And while as an adult we can understand more nuance, to a child that is an extreme lesson to learn. Because some kids will use that as motivation to try harder, but others will give up entirely, because if you are never going to be the best, what's the point? Or some kids will be the best for a while, then someone will surpass them and they will realize that their self-worth was tied up in their first place ribbon. It also places an emphasis on competition over cooperation. Rather than see peers as collaborators and sources of help and support, they are the enemy, the opposition. You can read more about competition in childhood here.

The other issue is that it devalues supportive roles that are necessary to a functioning society. That number one team wouldn't be number one if there weren't other teams to play against. The MVP wouldn't have a game to play without the other members of the team, etc. A CEO still needs employees to do some of the work. I absolutely hate myself for doing this, but remember that god awful movie, Talladega Nights? The winner of the race can't win without the support from the other racer. This is how society functions, and the  supportive roles are just as necessary, arguably more so, than the flashy super star first place spots. Devaluing those roles leads to the same kind of mindset that says people in certain low-skill jobs don't deserve to make a living wage, that stay at home moms aren't contributing to the family, and that people's worth is linked to their job title, salary, or other rank.

When we say that only first place, or second place or whatever, is deserving of recognition, we are telling kids that their efforts, skills, and contributions are valuable only through comparison. And that is a very unhealthy perspective for anyone to have, but especially children who are internalizing these lessons as they are developing self-esteem. No one is saying that every single child should be thrown a party or given a scholarship. But recognizing that they tried hard, worked to improve themselves, tried something new, helped out a team, encouraged their friends, or even failed at something and learned a valuable lesson- that reinforces the kind of perspective and framework that allows people to grow up to be empathetic, cooperative members of society. And call me crazy, but I think that is more important than being the best in the community T-ball league.