Trophies for nothing? About that James Harrison tweet

I’m about a week behind the news (lovely trip to Vancouver, BTW), but here goes.

NFL linebacker James Harrison tweeted (I think) the following.

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! 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. I’m sorry 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. #harrisonfamilyvalues

He struck a chord. And I must say, he caused me to think through a few things that have been bubbling below my surface for quite some time.

First, let’s be clear about one thing. If his boys grew up unreasonably believing that they’re entitled to things, Harrison should look a bit deeper than the trophy. He’s going to have to wear that one. there’s much more to raising children than sitting back and watching their rewards come in, or not.

Second, what’s the point of trophies anyways? What do we really accomplish by giving out trophies to the few or the many? Let’s face it, if you’re good, you and everyone else knows it. If you participated, you and everyone else knows it. What does the trophy accomplish? I’m not saying that all trophies should be abolished. I am saying that usually very little thought goes into the purpose of trophy giving.

(Aside: in big-money situations, such as pro sports and the Oscars, Grammies, etc. the point of the trophy is clear: it’s advertising for the product. Big-money awards shows are little more than the successful commandeering of the press to glorify and proselytize the entertainment industry.)

By the way, look at the size of these participation trophies!

Now I don’t mind nice little trinkets for participation–ribbons, pictures, etc.–because for some of the (young) kids just getting out and participating is important. But let’s keep it in perspective. A memento is nice, but these oversized hunks of plastic and wood are just a bit much. They’ll collect dust and then hit the garbage. The real “winner” is the trophy supply company.

And on that note, do you really think many kids over the age of 7 are falling for this? They know precisely how valuable the trophies are. The awarding of a trophy to everyone reduces the trophy to the value of an ice cream cone. In fact, I’m guessing that most kids would gladly trade the trophy for ice cream. But not all.

But not all.

There are children who will not go beyond this early competition, be it sports, or music, or speech or whatever. Not all children are equal in temperament, innate ability, parental support, capacity to learn and grow. Sometimes, we do need to acknowledge that not only is it ok to participate: for YOU, it’s GREAT.

And this is the real problem with trophies for everyone. It treats each kid to precisely the same reward, even though each kid has earned something different. For the highly motivated, highly talented child that stays with the activity, the success will come. These children don’t need to be told that they accomplished something; they know it. For the kid that cannot or will not advance to higher level of excellence, it is great that they showed up. It’s great that they had a chance to grow. And it’s great if they move onto something else, if that’s where their interests and talents take them.

So here’s my radical idea. Let’s not give ribbons, medals and trophies to everyone. Let’s not just give them to the “winners”. Let’s give them where they’ll do the most good.

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