When Pittsburgh Steelers player James Harrison returned his sons’ participation trophies in August, saying they hadn’t earn them, he set off a firestorm of commentary from parents.
Harrison, who has boys age 6 and 8, wrote, “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 you up and keep you happy.”
Some people questioned why such participation should not be rewarded, saying there is plenty of time for kids to learn about the nasty, competitive world that awaits them. Some argue that it takes a lot of effort for a little boy or girl to learn a new sport or to take on a new activity under a parent’s watchful eyes.
On the opposite side, supporters of his parenting decision shouted a virtual “Amen” from the tops of their social media pillars, saying that setting the bar higher for kids helps them achieve more.
The practice of handing out participation trophies is seen not only in youth sports, but in other activities as well.
It’s definitely cute to see our kids get their trophies or awards at the conclusion of season. We take pictures of them standing with their coaches and friends and truly enjoy the day each time. But when we go home, those trinkets get added to the stack, and the kids forget about them. I think it’s a great thing for preschoolers to receive a trophy or medal as a way to encourage them to try things, but once they get into elementary and middle school and into their fourth or fifth year in the activities, is it really necessary?
For kids who struggle to achieve benchmarks, some smaller accomplishments are worth gushing over. There are kids I know and love who deserve that recognition because some tasks do not come easily to them. By all means, coaches and activity directors should take a moment at the banquet or awards night to recognize specific achievements they witnessed during the season. They should feel proud of the progress that was made.
But if we are honest with one another, can we admit that not every accomplishment is a revelation? Regularly showing up for practice for a team you have joined does not make you a winner, just as showing up for work every day does not earn you a promotion.
Participation makes you a team member. Sometimes that is the very simple point of the endeavor, and that’s OK. But not every effort is worth a grand celebration. Activities and sports are about learning about yourself and contributing to something larger. The value is in the experience, not the medal at the end. I am apt to agree with Harrison, but from the perspective that these participation trophies are unnecessary.
Most of us have to work hard for the things we want. That’s life. It’s not the cruel adult world that some commentators warned about in the responses to Harrison’s post; it’s the very real world that both parents and children must face every day. By sheltering children and pretending that the world is otherwise, I believe we are doing them no good.
This philosophy doesn’t have to be a mean-spirited, negative lesson, however. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You don’t always have to win – and in reality, you won’t – but you should be able to be honest with yourself on the level of effort put into the task and find the joy in what you did get out of the experience.
Did the kids try their best? Did they have fun doing it? That’s a job well done in our eyes, and we readily tell them so on the ride home. We are proud each day of our children regardless of whether they win or lose. But when they take a real step forward, we celebrate those days a little more.
If they get a trophy, we happily put it on the shelf and highlight the best of their season in our conversations. But sometimes I appreciate it when there are no general awards handed out.
As parents, it’s our job to teach and model the concepts that life isn’t always fair and gratification isn’t always instant – and to do so in a supportive, constructive and truthful manner that gives them the emotional tools to move through life being able to accept whatever comes their way.
Laura Stetser is a full-time reporter and mother of two school-age children. She lives in southern New Jersey and writes for www.shorenewstoday.com. Connect with her Facebook and Twitter @TheMomsBeat or via email at email@example.com. This article originally appeared on Shore News Today
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