The Participation Trophy: A Bad Signal or a Just Reward for Kids?

It’s only natural for parents to want their children to participate.

Whether it’s raising their hand in class, taking art lessons after school  or participating in extracurricular athletics, being part of the action beats the alternatives of daydreaming or sitting on the couch, remote control in hand.

But should children be rewarded for mere participation?  We expect that Johnny has a thoughtful response when he does raise his hand. We expect that Cindy’s work of art, while perhaps not Picasso, is commensurate with her talents. And we expect that Tim will exert the kind of effort on the playing field that will, at minimum, do his teammates proud.

James Harrison,  a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, recently brought the issue back to the fore when he insisted his two sons return sports trophies they received for participating in youth sports.

“While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they earn a real trophy,” Harrison said on Instagram. “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.”


Harrison’s message unleashed a flurry of comments on social media—some supporting his stand, others taking him to task. Wrote one commenter: “You’re their dad and it’s your decision, but I couldn’t disagree more.”

ABC’s Good Morning America (GMA) followed Harrison’s post with a poll in which 70 percent of respondents said they believed participation trophies are not a good idea for kids.

Speaking on GMA, parenting expert Ericka Souter told the show’s panel: “This is a big debate. It can be a good thing that encourages kids to continue to participate. They feel like they have a role and think that role is important when they’re really young … when they’re three, four, five years old. It can teach kids the importance of teamwork, which is a lifelong lesson.

“On the other side, some parents feel that it celebrates mediocrity and encourages complacency, because the kids expect to be lauded for every single thing. What about the kids who are over-performers? Does it really celebrate those kids who go above and beyond on the team?”

The topic of rewarding excellence vs. participation is nothing new and permeates a wide spectrum of our culture, including education and grade inflation.

In a 2012 story entitled When Everyone Gets a Trophy, No One Wins, the Huffington Post’s, Michael Sigman wrote: “America’s ‘everyone gets a trophy’ syndrome has become a national joke.”

Citing a study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, Sigman notes that “‘A’ grades, which once conveyed excellence, are now given to 43 percent of all college students.”

Jean M. Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, told Sigman: “The ‘everybody gets a trophy’ mentality basically says that you’re going to get rewarded just for showing up. That won’t build true self-esteem; instead, it builds this empty sense of ‘I’m just fantastic, not because I did anything but just because I’m here.'”

The website tackles the subject of participation trophies with multiple threads, one of which found 82 percent responding “no,” to the question: “Should everybody get a trophy?”

Among comments from those in the trophy-favoring minority:

  • “Even if they are not good at the sport they all at least try their hardest. If some kids get trophies and some don’t, it won’t be fair. Besides it’s not a professional sport.”
  • “The children try so hard. If they try hard and aren’t rewarded for their work, they will stop working hard. Motivation! Without a reward, kids will stop working. We’ll get a generation of lazy, fat, demotivated kids who will not try anything new.”
  • “Everyone needs that one motivation. . . . That motivation is the trophy they receive, making them feel at least like all-stars. Kids can be crushed by anything and not getting a trophy could be one of them. Getting a trophy makes them feel awesome and very important to family and friends.”

But the majority of the comments were similar to these:

  • “No, not everyone should get a trophy because sometimes in life not everything is rainbows and lollipops. You have to work hard to earn something.”
  • “If everyone gets a trophy the winners are no longer special. People that are just there for the trophy are hurting the team and the people who want to win. Those people need to learn now that in the real world it is not equal!!!”
  • “In school, you work hard, you get an ‘A+’. You goof off and don’t do work, you get an ‘F’. In real life, you work hard at your job, you get an ‘A’ (employee of the month, raise, promotion, etc.), you goof off and come up with lame excuses, you get an ‘F’. But  in real life, ‘F’ stands for fired. . . . You can’t keep kids in bubbles.”

Commenting on Twitter, former Super Bowl champion quarterback Kurt Warner (@kurt13warner) backed Harrison’s stance and put an education spin on the conversation: “Don’t know where u stand but I am fully with @jharrison9292 on the participation trophy! They don’t let kids pass classes 4 just showing up!” Warner tweeted.

USA Today sports columnist Erik Brady disagreed with Harrison, writing: “The trophies cost a few bucks for a big smile. They do not cost trauma in later life. Woody Allen famously said 80 percent of success is showing up. Inscribe that on a participation bauble and consider this tempest in a trophy like a youth league referee: No harm, no foul.”

Personally, I’m with Harrison and Warner on this. I believe trophies for participation are unnecessary and even unappreciated by most children, the majority of whom feel a twinge of guilt in accepting an award they didn’t truly earn. Most get stuffed in a closet or a box, never to see the light.

Such hollow symbols of accomplishment send the wrong message, that mediocrity is not only acceptable but stands to be rewarded. A participation certificate, suitable for framing, might be a nice gesture. A trophy not contingent upon achievement is just a bit too much.

What do you think about the need to reward participation? Please share your thoughts below with other K12 parents and Learning Liftoff readers.

Featured Image –Brad.K / CC by 2.0


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