by Mark Goldberg
On August 15, All-Pro Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison announced that he is taking away his kids' participation trophies because he wants them to "EARN a real trophy." Harrison explained his position by writing on Instagram: I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best...cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better...not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”
Harrison’s action has certainly created great debate among parents of athletes and members of the media—people stand on both sides of the argument. Where do you stand? Perhaps reading comments from these recent articles and online postings may help you decide:
Everybody-gets-a-trophy proponents say children should be rewarded for their efforts, that the prizes give kids incentive to always try their best and persevere. But isn't that what the orange slices and cookies are for? By handing out trophies and medals at every turn, it actually sends the opposite message, essentially telling kids it's enough just to show up.
"The whole idea is to protect that kid and, ultimately, it’s a huge disservice. What kids need is skill-building. Help them do what they’re doing and do it better," said Ashley Merryman, co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.
"The benefit of competition isn’t actually winning. The benefit is improving," Merryman added. "When you're constantly giving a kid a trophy for everything they’re doing, you're saying, 'I don’t care about improvement. I don't care that you're learning from your mistakes. All we expect is that you’re always a winner.'
Learning the true values of hard work, perseverance and resilience, that's the real reward. All other trophies pale in comparison.”
Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociologist and author of “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture,” told the Daily Beast last year that kids are even smarter than parents about the essential worthlessness of giving everyone a trophy. “The first trophy means something, even if it’s just a participation trophy. It’s very exciting, and all the kids I studied remembered the circumstances from the first trophy they got. But very quickly, these participation trophies lose their meaning unless it’s for a really big win.”
He is right to say that success does not come from being handed opportunities or from being told that we are good, great or worthy. It comes from working hard, being determined and persistent, and having a positive attitude; from making your own opportunities, continually improving, and trying over and over again until you get it right.
There's a reason they say anything worth doing is worth doing well. Ask any of the most "successful" people in our world today and they'd likely tell you that, at the end of the day, their accomplishments were achieved through nothing but hard work.
Participation trophies aren’t a sign of everything that is wrong with parenting these days (GPS trackers for kids are more of a sign of that). I feel this endless debate on participation awards is actually a cover for parents’ real anxieties, which have more to do with their fear of kids becoming successful on and off the playing field. I doubt that a congratulatory trophy at the end of the season erases the countless hours of positive reinforcement about effort, sportsmanship, fair play ,and team spirit that parents give to their kids daily.
Participation trophies may be money-wasting dust collectors, but they’re not going to harm our children’s psyches and future motivations. I can’t imagine that any parent actually blames their child’s failures or behavioral issues on a few soccer trophies they received back when they were in elementary school.
Rest assured, his [Harrison’s] 6- and 8-year-old sons will get plenty of experience dealing with failure over the course of their lives. They'll come to learn soon enough what a dog-eat-dog world it is out there. No need to deprive them of this bit of pride and accomplishment, even if they received their trophies merely for taking part in a camp.
"Participation in youth sports has been declining steadily over the last decade," said Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova University. "If giving kids a trophy for showing up and trying to improve keeps them involved, then it is a good thing."
"I am not surprised that Harrison would take this view. As a professional athlete he lives in an unbelievably competitive world where finishing second is simply intolerable," Eckstein wrote in an email. "But kids should be motivated to play sports because it builds friendships, challenges them to improve, and, oh yes, can actually be fun. By focusing too much on winning and championships, we set kids up to stop participating at all, lest they be considered failures.
"This is not coddling kids," he added, "it is treating them LIKE kids, not tiny adults."