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Those Participation Trophies Matter More Than You Might Think

participation trophies
Image source: Stephanie Giese

I recently read a brilliant article by Mindy Kaling in which she talks about how when her mother “put away” a trophy she received as a kid for being the best dressed at basketball camp. Her mother’s reason was that in their house, they would only display awards that were earned.

It was as insightful, biting, and funny as we have come to expect from the soon-to-be mom. I nodded along as I agreed with her about hard work and earning your sense of entitlement.

The trophies though? I have seen so many posts on social media calling for their banishment. Five years ago, I would’ve agreed that participation trophies were pointless, but now I am not so sure.

I am raising three children, one of which has special needs. Can you guess which one has to work twice as hard to be able to do anything?

Can you guess which child, despite working the hardest, is least likely to earn any kind of trophy outside of participation?

Can you guess which child works three times longer on his homework, but is perhaps least likely to go to college?

Can you guess which child cried in my arms, because despite working on his fine motor skills in occupational therapy for four years, hadn’t “earned” the right to participate in an ice cream party with his fellow kindergarteners, who had learned to tie their shoes that year.

Only giving out trophies and awards to our most high-achieving children won’t help anyone.
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We talk about hard work, motivation, and rewards; I get it. I am all for sticker charts and whatever you want to do to enhance motivation in your house. But can I tell you a secret? Only giving out trophies and awards to our most high-achieving children won’t help anyone; those children are already motivated and naturally talented.

I was one of those children, and now I have one in my oldest daughter. She flies through her homework and gets outstanding grades. Is that because she works harder than her brother? Absolutely not. I can tell you as their mother, she works decidedly less.

Sometimes success is a measure of natural selection and not an accurate measure of someone’s efforts. I know the world doesn’t want to accept that, but it’s true.

This is especially true in an area like sports, where the biggest and the strongest are generally the best, because (spoiler alert!) while these kids are working just as hard as anyone else, they also have nature on their side.

Those participation awards might not mean as much to you, but to our family they are symbols of hard work, determination, and acceptance.
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For example, no matter how much I want it, I, as a 5’4” person who has never been naturally gifted at basketball, will probably never win a slam-dunk contest against Shaquille O’Neal.

Is it fair? No.

Is life fair? No, it is not.

And I obviously do not deserve to win a basketball game against Shaquille O’Neal.

True as that may be, and even if disappointment is an important life lesson to learn (and one that sports can help teach), is disappointment the only lesson I signed my son up for when I had him join a team? Because if so, no thanks. I want no part of it.

I would rather him learn teamwork, cooperation, trust, and companionship. I would like him to discover how to dig deep within himself and push past that feeling of disappointment. I want him to learn what personal success tastes like, even if he never knows what it feels like to win.

If my son is part of your team, he probably won’t help you score many runs or goals. He will talk too much. He will fall down quite a bit. He will probably even be a little bit frustrating to the coach. But he will make you laugh. He will (usually) be in a good mood. You might even learn something from him, too.

My son has earned exactly three awards in his entire life and they were all for participation. This year at tennis camp, he earned one of the many certificates they handed out for “Most Improved.” It may have been a glorified participation award, but still made us beam with pride.

Those participation awards might not mean as much to you, but to our family they are symbols of hard work, determination, and acceptance.

So before you fight to take away participation trophies, please remember the little boy with special needs who still has his green participation ribbon hanging on his bedroom door. Remember for him, and for all the others like him.

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