2 4 6 8 we’re glad you could participate!

I was about ten years old. It was Field Day at our school, the last hurrah before summer. Beautiful June day — blue skies, fluffy clouds, the warmth of the sun making the grass a perfect place to lay down and cloud gaze. I remember this because that’s what I was doing when a sixth grader kicked me in the shoe and told me to get up. I had to participate. Everyone did. I couldn’t just go to sleep in the grass when everyone else had to run around in this heat.

So I participated. I didn’t clear the high jump. I fell short on the hop, skip and jump. I came in last in the 40 yard dash. I don’t even want to talk about the tug of war contest and the ensuing bruise on my butt and my ego. All in all, not a good day. Yet when the event ended and prizes were given out, I ended up with a shiny medal on a ribbon. It didn’t say first place or second place or third place. It just said Field Day Participant. A medal. For me. Huh.

I got home and hung the medal on my wall. Then I thought about it. What did I do? Nothing. What did I achieve? Nothing. Sure, I tried. But I also failed. Who gets a medal for failing? I took the medal off the wall, walked outside and threw it in the garbage can.

A lot of kids wore their medals to school the next day. I looked for ones that were better than the others, ones that said champion or first place. But they all said the same thing. The kids who cleared the high bar and finished first in the dash had the same ribbons I did. When my teacher gave a heartfelt speech about trying your best and working together to have a good day, I felt about about throwing out that medal. I tried as hard as the other kids. Just because I couldn’t jump as far as they could doesn’t mean I didn’t give as much effort as them.

This happened yesterday on Instagram and it blew up on twitter. Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker James Harrison made his kids give back participation trophies. A shitstorm ensued. Tweets were made. Replies were fired back. Articles were written. Lines were drawn.

At first I was thinking about Harrison’s point of view. I had thoughts about kids growing up thinking everyone was on a level playing field, that you always got rewarded no matter your results, that life is fair and patient and kind. Which we know as adults it is not.But then I remembered my own participation medal and how I came around to thinking I earned it, sorry that I threw it out.

The thing is, maybe you are entitled to something just because you tried your best. Maybe you’re entitled to encouragement. What you are probably not entitled to is punishment, or discouragement. No kid should be told their best isn’t good enough. What kind of message is that sending?

Kids are growing up so fast these days. Why force adult rules and regulations on them at such an early age? There’s time for them to learn that life sucks, everything is meaningless and bosses rarely recognize your worth. For now, let them enjoy their youth sports trophies. You send your kid out to play in organized sports probably more because you want them to than because they want to. When they go out there and dive for those balls and make those catches they are probably doing the best they can and doing it to please adults. It would really suck if at the end of the season, those adults told told them their efforts are meaningless and they are, in effect, losers who don’t deserve even a token of appreciation that they made it through another season of oranges and juice boxes and parents screaming at other parents on the sideline. Childhood sports can be, like most of childhood, hard and cruel. The kids are learning how to deal with losses, they are learning how to be gracious winners, they are learning the fundamental rules of complex games, and improving at their skills as they go along. Why not give them a trophy? Participation is more than just showing up.

Whether it’s youth football or dance programs or spelling bees or field days, kids need to be encouraged so they don’t end up hating and resenting the very things we hope they love. Kids look to the adults in their lives for approval for everything they do, and a simple little trophy or medal can go a long way toward making them come back again next season to try even harder. Taking that small pat on the back and “atta boy” away from them is probably more detrimental than giving it to them in the first place.

Many, many years after the field day medal, I received a plaque for community service from work. It was nice, and I earned it, but it felt no different than the way I felt about the medal after I came around. I went out there and did the best job I could with a task that was put in front of me and someone felt I should be rewarded for that effort. It felt good. It made me want to do more.

I think about kids out on the Little League field, maybe kids who aren’t so good at the sport but play anyhow, kids who try so hard but can’t hit the cutoff man, kids who stumble around the bases or never make contact with the ball. I coached enough teams to know those kids are out there, every game, trying and trying to be a contributing member of the team. It’s those kids that come to mind when I think about participation trophies. Let them have this. Yes, they do deserve it. They all do. There’s time enough later for them to not be rewarded for their efforts. No need to make adults out of little kids.

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