Participation trophies – Are they bad for our children?

Over the past decade or so there have been numerous articles of a particular kind that have been doing the rounds. These articles claim that participation trophies are a waste of time, or that they are meaningless because, as a writer in the opinion page of the New York Times wrote in 2016, “they are handed out like candy.”

Let’s take a closer look at what this article is saying:

The writer of the article played sport all her life and as a child received dozens of trophies, ribbons and medals.  Regarding her stash of awards she makes the observation: “They do not mean much to me because I know that identical awards sit in other children’s rooms all over town and probably in millions of other homes across the country.”  She goes on to state that, “Trophies used to be awarded to winners, but are now little more than party favours….when awards are handed out like candy to every child who participates, they diminish in value.”  The article’s most damning assertion is that participation trophies “convey an inaccurate and potentially dangerous life message to children: We are all winners.”

But could there be another way of looking at this?  What, after all, is wrong with everyone feeling like a winner of some kind?  The key words here are “of some kind”.  From our experience of providing trophies for club sports, and the feedback we get from clubs, the participation trophy doesn’t fool any child that they are the best player when they are not; the participation trophy does not convince any child that they won the race when they didn’t. Children know a lie when they see it.  The role of these awards is to acknowledge the child’s unique role in the team; in this way, the awards are actually unique as each child is unique.  The article assumes that we live in a world where there are winners and losers, it assumes that we all ascribe to this belief that if you don’t win at something you lose, which is far from the predominant ideal that we hold in our business and that we see held dear in Australian society; the idea being that if everyone “has a go” and gives their best then they contribute to what makes a team, and by extension to what makes a healthy society.

We are sure the author of the Times article likes recognition herself, let’s face it we all do in some way or other. A participation trophy is a recognition of being part of a team or event/season.  A kid shows up every week, runs around tries their guts out and a participation trophy is the child’s memento of being part of something big, something that adds character and a very healthy experience to the child’s life. When you run the city to surf, no matter how old you are, you get awarded a medallion at the end of the run. Perhaps some people toss it in the bin but we bet a very large proportion of finishers cherish the medal as a memento of personal achievement and participation in a physical healthy momentous event.

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