Participatory Versus Earned Trophies: Implications for Children’s Future
Kid holding a trophy

Kid holding a soccer trophySpring sports season is underway. As the season wears on – we see the ups and downs of children’s reactions to wins and losses. In some sports leagues, all of the kids receive a trophy, regardless of the champions. Is this really the best lesson to teach children?

Think about the differentiation between intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from the pleasure one gets from the task itself rather than from receiving external or outside rewards. One of my advisors at Brandeis University (my alma mater) is a well-known social psychologist who researches predictors of creativity. As an undergraduate research assistant to one of her thesis students, we traveled throughout the Boston area, taking pictures of various artworks designed by student artists that were created either for classes or for pure self-satisfaction. Result of the study revealed that the judges’ ratings of creativity were higher for artwork produced as a result of satisfying an internal desire. How does this relate to kids’ trophies?

There are vast concerns for our current generation of youth – obesity, mediocre work ethic, technological dependency, and from what I observe on numerous occasions in both clinical and social settings, a disrespectful attitude toward adult figures. Is it possible that participatory trophies are related to these problems? Children can earn trophies merely for being on a team. This concept relays the unspoken message that children just have to show up and not put forth their best, potential effort. Before you get your feathers in a ruffle, there are always exceptions to the rule. Of course, some children do earn the reward, but that is the key word, earn. Hard work, persistence, dedication, team commitment, loyalty, and notable athletic progress should be rewarded.

Let’s leap ahead and look at our generation of children several years from now. With this philosophy, we could predict that the children who have acted upon their intrinsic motivation to perform well will most likely be more successful with obtaining their choice of college, career development, relationships, and, overall, adapting a healthy and productive lifestyle. We provide a great disservice when we allow children privileges at home or in the community without merit. Subsequently, they will most likely struggle with ongoing problems of, for example, unstable employment and relationships and subsequently develop a perceived “why me?” attitude. Such individuals tend to offend others with their sense of entitlement, having very limited insight into their shortcomings.

To my dismay, I have on one too many occasions observed parents running to their youngsters’ rescue, defending them against fellow adult figures that their children have been wrongfully targeted, stripping them of owning any responsibility or failing to teach them that external rewards and recognition are earned, not entitled. We see this, for example, on the basketball courts or soccer fields when parents become perturbed when they believe that their children erroneously receive fouls or in school when their children receive low grades or misbehave in the classroom because of teachers’ limited abilities. So, the next time you want to set the coach or teacher straight, think about the implications your actions may have on your child’s personality development. Consider your child’s responsibility in any given situation, whether favorable or unfavorable. If you do not parent with this mindset, you may, unknowingly, be handicapping your child’s ability to achieve future success based on an intrinsic desire to create and exist in a happy life. Instead, you may be teaching them to create a circular pursuit of hollow materialism.