The debate over whether or not kids deserve participation trophies is one that can elicit plenty of anger, plenty of emotions, and plenty of conflict. Rightfully so. There are those that think giving a child a participation trophy will encourage them to do better. That perhaps it will ignite some kind of fire in them to be more involved instead of sitting quietly in the corner. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with encouragement and wanting your child to smile. But is handing out a participation trophy the right way to do it? My initial answer would be “it depends.” However if you had a gun to my head and asked me “do children deserve participation trophies?” my answer would be no.
There’s one reason why and it’s something I’ll never ever get over. Children don’t deserve participation trophies because life is never going to hand you a participation trophy. To me it’s that simple. Why instill false expectations in children? Why ingrain into them at an early age that merely showing up gets the job done? Showing up is a big part of the game but being prepared and executing is just as big a part of said game.
It’s not like you’re going to be a news anchor, get on the air, completely botch your news report, and your boss is going to say, “hey well at least you tried, and here’s an extra 20 bucks on your paycheck.” It’s not as if you’ll be in a relationship, cheat on the other person and your partner says, “hey I understand, you’ll do better next time.” No, in real life you’re getting fired and you’re getting dumped or divorced.
But in real life, getting fired and getting dumped (while hard to take) are great ways to learn lessons, just as all failures are. So why avoid them, or at least try to avoid or shield them? In my view? Don’t.
The earlier you learn about failure the better
Can you imagine being taught from a very early age that failure is a good thing? That it’s something you shouldn’t avoid but rather you should embrace? Can you imagine having the mindset that every single failure will make you a better person? That it will make you stronger? That it will get you one step closer to your goals, whatever those goals may be?
This isn’t me saying that you shouldn’t encourage your children. This isn’t me saying that them being involved in anything without success is a bad thing. In fact it’s the contrary. It’s good to make mistakes. It’s good to fall down and not always have someone there to pick you up.
What I’m saying is that mistakes shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded but rather they should be learned from. Falling down doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn to get up by yourself. The kind of encouragement people need is self-encouragement. We absolutely should learn to rely on others, but equally as much we need to learn to rely on ourselves. And frankly handing out praise just for being there doesn’t match up with the challenges it takes to get to where you want to go.
And it’s our job as leaders, parents, bosses, whatever the title, to teach that to the ones following us.
So how do you reward participation?
You do it with words. You do it with actions. I just don’t think you do it with materialistic rewards like trophies. When my child plays a video game and he fails to beat the final boss, I never try to make him feel good about it. It’s his right to feel the way he feels. But I won’t hesitate in telling him he did a great job because perhaps he got closer to beating said boss. And I’ll him, “guess what son? That loss just brought you one step closer to a win. You learned a little more today. And we’re not going to stop taking on this guy until we win.”
Showing up is only part of the equation
I said it before but I think it bears repeating: showing up is only part of the equation. Preparing for when you show up and executing on said preparation are of equal importance when it comes to achieving anything. Why reward simply showing up? Why tell a person, “it’s all good, you weren’t prepared at all and you executed nothing, but I’m really proud of you anyway?” “Oh and by the way here’s a symbol of my appreciation that you showed up.” No. That’s not how life works and the sooner you learn that the better. Kids are way stronger and resilient than we realize. They can handle almost anything we throw at them. The right mix of love, encouragement, but also a fine dose of reality will get you way further than just trying to make them smile all the time just for being on this earth.