Participation trophies don’t harm kids.

They can teach valuable lessons, if we let them.

Last October (2016) an op-ed appeared in the New York Times, titled “Participation Trophies Send a Dangerous Message.” I’m writing about this not because I disagree with one person; that wouldn’t be worth my time. I’m discussing this because this belief has been echoed by so many for so long.

The premise of the opinion piece is that participation trophies turned Millennial children into unproductive, entitled adults, doomed to spend their entire lives thinking the world owes them awards for everything.

Most of the “children” in question are now in their 20s and early 30s. The vast majority hold jobs or are attending school (and taking on massive debt, a subject I’ll address shortly). They’re married, raising children, and embarking on careers, or maybe just working jobs.


On “entitlement”

Students in the 21st century have taken on crushing amounts of student debt, all for the purpose of an education to advance their careers — much more than previous generations. Debt that’s $30,000 or more. That’s one hell of a “participation trophy.”

Many are working two and three jobs, expecting little in return other than a paycheck, one that provides shelter and food on the table. That’s not a participation trophy; that’s the whole purpose of holding down a job. Often, multiple jobs can’t even accomplish that — the wage has been mostly stagnant with few increases, while the cost of living and education has increased exponentially.

And for a generation that’s supposedly so self-absorbed and obsessed with their trophy collection, studies show a high percentage of concern for the rights of others, even on issues that don’t affect them directly. For example, data from a June 2017 Pew Research Center poll shows that 79% of people ages 18–29 support same-sex marriage. Another poll shows that in addition to same-sex marriage, the vast majority of millennials support a path to citizenship for immigrants (a much more humane stance than forcing people back into the violence and poverty they’re running from). A majority percentage also opposes cuts to social security benefits, even though most believe they’ll never receive those benefits at all.

Concern for the welfare and rights of others is not a trait of a selfish, entitled person. You don’t get a participation trophy for fighting and voting for equal rights for marginalized populations.


On “everyone is a winner”

The author literally says it’s dangerous — yes, she used that word — to give children small trophies for taking part in a team.

“Trophies for all convey an inaccurate and potentially dangerous life message to children: We are all winners.”

Really? It’s “dangerous” to tell young children that regardless of their athletic abilities, they should be proud of their effort and commitment?

I’ll never forget my middle-school social studies class. Every day after the bell rang, when all students were seated, the teacher would say:

“How many winners walked through the door today?” And he would repeat this question, over and over, until EVERY student in the room raised his or her hand. Myself and the other students were 11 and 12 at the time. I doubt I was the only one who rolled my eyes every time. That was about 20 years ago.

I’m now an adult in my early 30s, and I would give anything to thank this wonderful, caring teacher and tell him how important his “winners” emphasis really was, even if the only immediate results were eye rolls from preteen students.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that there were probably some students that really needed to hear it.

Telling a preteen he or she is a “winner” doesn’t tell them the world owes them anything. It says, “Don’t give up. Your life is worth something; you’re capable and worthy of living a productive life. You have good reasons to stay in school, to stay away from drugs and crime.” Not once did this teacher say the students were entitled to anything (other than respect and human decency). Quite the opposite; he emphasized hard work, effort and persistence as “winning” characteristics.

It’s absurd to assume that handing an 7-year-old a cheap piece of plastic at the end of a season is going to turn him into a lazy, rotten, entitled, self-absorbed adult. I’d bet that most elementary school children view the trophy as nothing more than a commemoration of a sports season. That’s it. Unless the adults choose to make an issue out of it.

We as a society should place responsibility firmly on parents, not cheap pieces of plastic, for teaching kids to be hard-working, empathetic, decent human beings.

“As in sports as well as life, it is fact that there’s room for only a select few on the winners’ podium.”

Elitist much? It seems rather harsh and short-sighted to devalue the contribution of 99% of the population. The economy as a whole depends on the contributions of many, not just a few.

On lessons from team sports

The idea of youth sports should be to teach kids teamwork, persistence, good sportsmanship and how to work towards a goal and improve skills needed to play the game. Children learn much more than a sport when they develop the ability to be a gracious winner or loser — not a sore one. That skill, or lack thereof, will stick with each child long after the season ends. As they become teenagers and adults, they’ll need to know how to handle life’s wins and losses with grace and to keep going. That right there, my friends, is the real secret to success. They won’t learn to do this if the team has a win-at-all-costs attitude, or encourages gloating about who has the most trophies.

It is critically important to teach children that a successful life comes from years of hard work, persistence, and the patience to work towards both long- and short-term goals. Wins and losses aren’t permanent. Most people’s lives are full of both and it’s important to know how to move forward afterwards. Celebrate the win — whether it’s a job offer or award — and be proud of it, but then move on. Take time to grieve the losses. You might not be offered the job or the promotion, and you might not get an “A” on every project or college paper or accepted into a particular school. You may even fail a class. All of those are okay, as long as you get up, keep going and decide not to quit.

Despite the bad reputation they have, participation trophies given at the end of a season rewards players for commitment, effort, teamwork, and dedication. These are all traits, by the way, that will not only serve them well throughout life, but these skills also look great on a resume.

Most adults who played sports as children aren’t better people because their team won more frequently or because they have a shelf full of 1st place trophies. They’re better people because of the sportsmanship and teamwork they learned. Those are valuable lessons that will make them winners at life.