Trophy Children, Ctd

Molly Knefel, the writer whose essay kicked off the popular thread, writes the Dish:

Thanks very much for the link, it’s been quite interesting to follow the discussion. Your characterization of my argument as simply pro-participation trophy, however, is incomplete. My essay is about recognizing children for what they’re good at, because every child is good at something. My argument isn’t about literal trophies, or not recognizing excellence, or mandatory participation awards. It’s about critiquing the idea that making all kids feel appreciated will somehow make them weak. So many children never get recognized for what they’re good at if they’re not the best at the predetermined categories.

A reader nods:

As someone who spent 23 years in the Navy, I find it odd that we think society will fall if we recognize collective achievement by children.

Such presentations are a sacred tradition in the military, where anytime you depart a command you are awarded a plaque, framed photo, or other memento recognizing your contribution to that unit – for simply having been on the team. Yes, if you do good work you are also rewarded with a medal or a letter of commendation, usually presented at a different ceremony. But what I have on my wall are the plaques, the “crossing-the-line” certificate, and the photos signed by my comrades. Those are what bring back great memories for me and make me glad I served. If this system is good enough for the warriors, it’s good enough for the wee ones.

Another argues that awarding individual trophies for kids’ team sports is “a totally misguided concept”:

For sports like soccer, football and basketball, the children who are awarded individual trophies are often those who play most selfishly. Even at very high levels of basketball, the perception is that players who score the most points are the most skilled. However, the players who score the most are usually just those that take the most shots, which in the case of basketball means literally taking them from your teammates. Sports statisticians like Dave Berri and Andres Alvarez have shown that a player who scores a lot but does so inefficiently actually has a negative impact on his teams’ chances to win but will still be perceived as more valuable than his teammates.

Other sports are less extreme examples, but the point is that it’s very hard to tease out individual performance from team results. Having individual awards in team sports for children often ends up with the kids watching their most selfish teammate congratulated by adults for his selfish play.

Another gives us pause:

My child is a trophy child. She had a brain tumor at birth that we discovered when she was three months old, thanks to some all-night seizures. Three surgeries and four months later, almost the entire tumor had been removed. What remains will hopefully not cause additional seizures, hormone imbalances, or other problems. The stroke during her second surgery (at six months of age) meant she had to spend two weeks in a neurorehabilitation hospital once she recovered enough from surgeries to remain conscious. Now almost four years old and three years later, she has had roughly 8 OT, PT and speech therapy appointments per week since being released from the hospital.

I know that perhaps this all sounds whiny or like I’m trying to shame those who worry about their children’s or other children’s medals, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean no offense to anyone; I’m just reflecting on how my daughter and maybe other kids with special needs are so often not included in societal hand-wringing about “kids today.”

Trophy Children, Ctd

The popular thread continues. A fan of participatory awards writes:

I love this reader: “I don’t know, maybe because the world IS unfair and we’re realists and not delusional purveyors of utopian fantasy?” Calm down, buddy. These are children. With children, we (collectively) are absolutely purveyors of utopian fantasy. See: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, all dogs going to heaven, et al.

Another reader:

I don’t understand why so many people assume “all the kids get a trophy” means “the kids who excel get the same recognition as the kids who don’t.” All three of my nieces, who are excellent swimmers, have a stack of ribbons, medals, and awards in their bedroom for their specific accomplishments in the pool. One of them has won awards as swimmer of the year and has recognition for breaking multiple club records.

But I’m glad that the other kids, the ones who are struggling to learn strokes, the ones who are there for the exercise, also get a trophy. Because honestly, they deserve some recognition too, and a bit of a chance to brag to adoring aunts. They finished a season, and in a world of 7:00 a.m. pool practice, that’s not the easiest thing for a 10-year-old. Life is not a zero-sum game, folks.


The parallel I can think of in adult sports is running a marathon.

In most marathons, everybody who finishes gets a medal. My Boston Marathon medal is one of my proudest possessions. It is a memento of my training and accomplishment – yes, the accomplishment of losing a race to 10,000 people or so.

But another doesn’t see the need for such tokens for anyway:

Why not get rid of trophies altogether? Winners know they won. Talented singers know they crushed it. Nobody needs a trophy or a medal. I’d argue that not handing out trophies at every turn would teach a better lesson – life isn’t about the destination (a trophy), but the journey (working hard, staying committed, having fun). What’s so wrong with playing sports for the sake of playing sports? Or singing for the sake of filling the world with beautiful music? Or studying for the sake of expanding one’s mind?

Another looks at an underlying divide in this debate:

It seems that this debate is a ridiculous argument between two extreme world views: one being that we should only reward excellence and never mediocrity, and the other that we should never reward excellence lest someone’s feelings get hurt. I don’t know of anyone who actually makes the latter argument, but the former seems to be an article of faith for some who get offended whenever they see Everyone Winning a Prize.

I consider both viewpoints to be ridiculous. Growing up, I was the chubby, slow kid who got picked last in sports but who blew out the curve in academics, so I’ve seen this from both sides. There’s nothing inherently wrong in acknowledging participation. Most of the kids who participate in an activity – say, youth soccer – spend quite a bit of time doing it. If the coach buys ’em a $2 trophy for showing up to practices and games, what’s horrible about this? If everyone on the team got an award proclaiming each of them to be the MVP, now that would be silly as hell, but participation awards are for participating: no more, no less. The kids who play organized soccer get them, those who stay home and play with their XBox, don’t.

Now, if recognizing excellence were banned – especially in a competitive context, where excellence is actually demanded – that would be a problem. But the quasi-Randian assertion that participation should not be recognized, and that the spoils should only go to the victor, is to me a bit obnoxious – the sort of vainglorious self-aggrandizement that often comes from those who excel at something (or have children who do) and expect the world and dog to come and kiss their ass. Two of my kids are very good at soccer, but I find the attitude that the weaker kids on the team should be treated like garbage because they don’t score as many goals to be morally offensive. And I make sure my boys know that being assholes to their less-skilled teammates will not be tolerated.

Trophy Children, Ctd

A reader sends the above video:

I’m firmly with those who feel that “trophies for everyone” devalues achievement. It also lessens the drive that comes from a “Just Wait ‘Til Next Year” mentality. But don’t take my word. Tanner and Timmy Lupus can demonstrate.

Another argues that the evidence supports the opposite approach:

We probably should be awarding trophies based on effort, not performance. The well-established psychological research of Carol Dweck and others says that kids will continue to work hard if they believe that hard work pays off, but they will give up easily if they have a fixed theory of ability, meaning they think they are either innately good or bad at something. Kids with an fixed theory of ability give up when they encounter obstacles because they assume that they are just innately bad at that particular task. These mentalities persist into adulthood. This is why we should reward kids for their efforts and praise them for trying hard: it will encourage them and helps build resilience.

That doesn’t mean that showing up is trying and therefore trophy-worthy. But it’s unclear to me why the anti-trophy crowd wants to reinforce awards in a manner that we know is bad for kids’ development.

More readers continue the popular discussion:

I find it odd that many of the parents writing in want to celebrate their kids success by taking away the other kids’ trophies.

My kid is introverted and isn’t super talented, so just getting him to participate is a struggle sometimes. Having some of his teammates get trophies and leaving him out will just discourage him even more. And for what, some life lesson? Give me a break. He’ll learn soon enough that life is hard and unfair. I didn’t sign him up for that purpose; I signed him up so he could get some exercise and develop his social skills. So please leave him and his trophy alone. Taking it away won’t somehow make it easier for your kid to be an Olympian.

Another makes an important point:

There’s a huge difference between giving trophies to everyone on a high-school team and on a team of six-year-olds. For younger children, athletic prowess is difficult to measure. Dribbling a few feet down the soccer field is beyond most of the kids. Most of the goals I’ve seen have been scored by fluke. For very young children, showing up to every practice, participating in the drills and not running off the field crying truly is something that deserves a trophy. There’s plenty of time to introduce them to the Darwinian world of sports when they’re older.

Another sighs, “The whining about giving participation trophies drives me nuts”:

I generally hear it from people who have never coached kids – and sometimes from those who don’t even have kids. I’d like to add a few points to the discussion. First, in my experience, participation trophies are only given out at a very young age. By the time my kids were nine, they had stopped receiving participation trophies for swimming and soccer (their two primary sports). They’ve got plenty of time left to figure out – as if they haven’t already – that most rewards are earned.

Second, as someone who has (briefly) coached youth sports, I can tell you that “thanks for showing up” is a sincere sentiment. In the context of team sports, you need all the kids you can get. No one can field a team of only the superstar eight-year-olds, let alone a whole league. There aren’t that many of them. You need the mediocre (and worse) kids to show up, or little Jimmy superstar is going to be sitting around without a league to play in. In that sense, every kid on the team is valuable. And you want as many of these kids to stick with these sports for as long as you can. The kid who looked like a future superstar at six may have stopped improving (or growing) by 10. Or he’s lost interest. And the kid who sucked at six may be a superstar at 12 or 14 or 16. Trying to weed these kids out early is a terrible idea.

Third, in an age when childhood obesity is an increasing problem, showing up and playing, even if not particularly well, should be encouraged in any way possible. Very young kids frequently need motivation. Parenting young children is all about motivating beneficial behavior. What’s wrong with using a cheap trophy to (ideally) spark an interest in sports? If a trophy (or a ball personalized by the coaching staff, which is an excellent idea some of my kids coaches have also used) keeps these kids coming out to play, it’s well worth it.

Many readers jumped on the last one in the previous post. One of the kinder emails:

What this dad doesn’t get is that a talent show is a show, not a competition, despite what years of American Idol may make people believe.  While the applause is the extrinsic reward for the young artists’ performance (hopefully on top of the intrinsic reward of art for art’s sake), it is your applause that matters, not who got applause louder than yours at curtain call.  Any real performer would feel revulsion at the very suggestion.

And since this is about young people, remember that the teacher had students on stage AND in the audience.  Just artists need to learn how to be good artists, young audience members need to learn how to be good audience members, so I have no qualms about the teacher instructing the kids on applause.

Finally, a dad who is upset not even that his daughter’s applause wasn’t sufficient, but that applause for other acts was too generous and devaluing his daughter’s performance?  And who is teaching his daughter that lesson? Well, I’ve got a trophy for him, and I know exactly where he can put it.  To thunderous applause.

Trophy Children, Ctd

Lots of reader pushback on Molly Knefel’s case for participatory awards:

Instead, that kid [who doesn’t get a trophy] is supposed to get the message: If you didn’t score a lot of points, no one gives a shit about you. And if that makes you sad, or if you feel that it’s not fair, get used to it. The world is a sad and unfair place. Score more goals next time. This message has always felt at odds, to me, with the equally ubiquitous platitude that children are the future. If children are the future, then why are we so gung ho about preparing them to be treated unfairly?

I don’t know, maybe because the world IS unfair and we’re realists and not delusional purveyors of utopian fantasy?

So kids who ARE good at something have to live with the satisfaction that scoring a goal is enough, but the kid who sucks (like me) NEEDS a trophy to keep him from feeling bad about himself more than the kid scoring the goal? NO. Why can’t we celebrate the exceptional? When a kid does something well we’re supposed reinforce it by telling him it’s just what’s expected so don’t get too excited because there’s no awards in life for being exceptional? But, um … there are. From the Oscars to the Olympics to the Nobel Peace Prize.

Another adds, “Knowing that life is not fair, and that your achievements are not handed to you, makes earning them sweeter.” Another key point:

Giving trophies to everyone is practically like giving away none, because with the ubiquity comes devaluation.

I’m a lifelong mediocre jock. Somehow my spirit has never been broken when I come in 14th out of 25 in a bicycle race, or my soccer team fails to make the playoffs. I do it because it is fun, and that is its own reward. I keep one 35-year-old trophy on display. It’s for being “most improved” on a wrestling team. It was one of two trophies given out that year, along with “most valuable” which went to a Columbia-bound stud. I earned that sucker because I worked my ass off that year – and was lucky. If the rest of the team got trophies as well, I guarantee you that they would all have ended up in landfills long ago.

Another asks Knefel:

Do you really think kids are unaware they’re being patronized? Do you think they’ll value a participation trophy, or feel a sense of accomplishment?

I was a mediocre baseball player as a kid. I got many participation trophies, which I promptly forgot. They’re probably in a box somewhere in my parents’ basement. I knew I wasn’t a great athlete and the trophies were just a pro forma thing, so I didn’t value them. On the other hand, I was always one of the top students in my class. I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment at high grades because I felt I had earned them, not simply been given them.

Participation trophies may be fine for three year olds, but as kids get older we should stop trying to GIVE them self esteem, or teach them that they’re entitled to their desired result, and not getting it means they’ve been treated “unfairly.”

And another:

Expecting a child who has made no notable contribution to a soccer team to be moved by the receipt of a trophy is to assume that in addition to being a poor soccer player, that he is also daft. I was a non-athlete as a child who was nonetheless forced onto the occasional youth sports team. Getting a trophy would have been an absurdity. What I do remember fondly was 15 minutes that a substitute coach once spent with me trying to improve my skills at connecting bat and ball. And with some success. But then, trophies are easier than actually spending time with kids improving skills, aren’t they?

Another shares an excellent idea:

Having coached youth baseball and basketball for several years now while being staunchly opposed to participation trophies, I’ve adopted a solution my coaching mentor came up with. I create personalized mementoes for every player by taking a baseball (or miniature basketball) and writing the year, team name, player name and number and a personalized message about the season. I often get assistant coaches to write something as well. It doesn’t take long, but it is an appropriate way of acknowledging participation and more importantly, team membership. Giving a trophy for participation is like using a crescent wrench as a hammer. It does a sub-par job and devalues the tool for its intended purpose.

A lone dissenter so far:

I was glad to see Molly Knefel defend giving trophies to an entire team.  Major pet peeve for me when people trot this out as one more thing that is wrong with kids (parents) today, mostly from people who don’t have kids.  These days children are fast tracked into a sport as early as age 5.  Little Tommy is on travel baseball, and little Sally is spending 8 hours practicing gymnastics.  And then there are the kids who are still “just rec”, as in they are on the recreational team, as in they are not good enough for a competitive team, or their parents can’t get them to all the the practices (often held while working parents are, well, working).  These kids KNOW they aren’t as good, or as lucky, and they don’t need a trophy withheld to beat it further into their heads that they are less than.

So give the kids a break. A participant trophy for an 8 year old does not destroy the fabric of society.  It just makes a kid feel special for a moment, for finishing what he or she started, for being a member of a team, or for doing their best despite challenges.  Let’s spend more time criticizing the parents who must boastfully remind others that their kid IS on a competitive team while they look down their nose at other children or are simply participating in a recreational team.

One such parent cries:


Look, I’m probably the most Liberal of all your readers, but as the father of an insanely talented 12-year-old daughter, I cannot abide this Everyone Wins mentality. And not because I’m against the theory of “Hey, you showed up and kicked that ball and your leg didn’t fall off, have a trophy!”, but because I hate to see the dilution of true talent in the face of egalitarian praise.

Case in point: My daughter is a genuinely talented singer (said no other proud parent, ever) who was excited to compete in her school’s talent show. Having just come off a local theater run of “Annie” in the lead role, she was sort of feeling badass and wanted another chance to shine before an audience. But this was less a talent show in the traditional sense and more a Display of Talent For Its Own Sake, where EVERYONE WAS A WINNER and even the truly crap acts (sometimes especially the crap acts!) got raucous cheers of support from their peers. So when my TRULY talented and extra-special daughter (said no other proud parent, ever) sang her song and killed it, the applause level was exactly what it had been for the kid whose mother had dressed him in a homemade snowman suit and sent him out to sing “In Summer” from Frozen, an act that would, in my day, have gotten me beaten half to death by bullies outraged by my daring to offend their ears with such a tragic display.

So I asked my daughter, afterwards, if her peers had been coached ahead of time to whistle and hoot and clap and shout and rave for every act, and she confirmed my suspicion: The music teacher had indeed required that everyone be treated as American Idols and wildly applauded, regardless of how badly they stank the place up. “How do you feel about that?” I asked my TRULY talented daughter. She shrugged, trying to be diplomatic about it, but said, “What was the point?”

Indeed. There is excellence (like my Truly Talented Daughter), and there is mediocrity, and if we as parents continue blending the two in a blinding array of ecstatic applause, the gifted among us may just all wonder what the point of shining is.

But seriously, my daughter kicks ass.

Trophy Children

swimming trophies

Teacher Molly Knefel defends giving every kid a trophy:

The disgust that so many adults feel at the idea of everyone getting a trophy has to do with creating incentives. If everyone gets a trophy then no one will try hard; if everyone gets basic food and housing to survive, then no one will work. Of course, this isn’t true. A soccer team full of 10-year-olds who all get participation trophies won’t all sit down and stop playing soccer– the kids who are good at scoring points will still want to do so. But the kid who never scored a point will, for a moment, be recognized: You played soccer too.

Instead, that kid is supposed to get the message: If you didn’t score a lot of points, no one gives a shit about you. And if that makes you sad, or if you feel that it’s not fair, get used to it. The world is a sad and unfair place. Score more goals next time. This message has always felt at odds, to me, with the equally ubiquitous platitude that children are the future. If children are the future, then why are we so gung ho about preparing them to be treated unfairly?

So they are better equipped to handle it.

(Photo by Flickr user terren in Virginia)