Everyone is a Winner

What's the value of empty praise?


My seven-year-old son recently played his first season of soccer. Although we had a great time cheering for his team, I must admit that they were a pretty sad bunch of players. Out of the whole season, they lost every game but the very last one and we were so relieved that they managed to somehow pull off a win.

So, I was shocked when the coach asked us to stick around for a trophy ceremony after the game. The sweaty kids lined up and as they called each child up to receive his or her trophy, my mind wandered to the all the games that they had played. Sure, I had screamed my head off in excitement when my son kicked the ball into the goal or did an awesome block.

Yet, most of the time, the children were actually playing a spontaneous game of tag in the middle of the game. Several times a befuddled child kicked the ball into the wrong goal and scored a point for the other team. There were numerous moments when I saw one little boy pick his nose while gazing up at a plane that flew overhead as the ball rolled past him. One time, they competed with a team who actually knew how to play and it was painful to watch.

Back at the ceremony, I tried to rally and be the supportive Mom who clapped the loudest when my son grasped his trophy. In the back of mind I wondered, was it wrong to hand out trophies to a losing team?

My son must have felt the same way because on the drive home he asked from the back seat of the car, "Why did I get this trophy again, we only won one game?" I was stumped and didn't quite know how to answer his question. "Uh, to remember how much fun you had playing the games." I said. He accepted that answer and set the trophy down on the seat next to him.

Later, I was dusting off the shelf that held his prize (and his plastic swimming metal that he received just for showing up for swimming lessons) when I accidentally knocked his soccer trophy off of the shelf. The shiny soccer player that had been perched on top broke off and I felt horrible.

I set the pieces off to the side with the intention of buying glue at the store to fix it. I must admit that when I went to back fix it, the soccer player was actually missing. I'm suspecting thet he is currently driving a toy firetruck in his younger brother's room.

My son has not even noticed that the trophy is broken, which leads me to wonder, just how important is a trophy to a child when they didn't actually earn it? What message does it send children when they are given empty praise?

I know that the intention must be good to reward all participants, but I remember that when I was a kid, if you had a trophy on display, it meant that you had worked hard and earned it. There was one winner and if you felt bad about losing, then you worked harder the next time. What messages are we sending kids today?

What kind of adults will they turn out to be? Will they all show up to work and expect a ribbon for showing up on time? Are all the empty trophies going to create entitled adults who crave recognition? Maybe I'm over thinking this, though. Perhaps they will all end up feeling extremely valued when they grow up.

Until then, I will try to be honest with my kids when they get their "just because" trophy and let them know that every kid got one to remember the experience by. We will designate a special spot for the ones that they actually earn and give them an extra pat on the back when they do. Hopefully, both of my boys will learn the value of hard work, despite the easy rewards that may come their way.

Do you think that it's okay to reward children even when they didn't earn it or do you think it's important to make sure that every child feels important? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Leigh Hewett February 09, 2012 at 02:06 PM
I can appreciate what you're saying here but I'd like to take that sentiment a step further, for my children at least. I take my responsibility seriously to guide them to adulthood the best that I can. Only they can choose their path but I believe that the lessons that they learn now will follow them into adulthood. I move forward with the attitude that they will hold a job as adults and hope for the best. I know that might sound idealistic to some but a good work ethic will take you far in life. I hope that the current generation of parents can manage to instil that in their children as well. I don't think that a participation trophy is going to set a child up for failure in the future but I do believe that it's sending mixed messages. It will be interesting to see the trail of trophies that are left behind in their path and where that path takes them.
Leigh Hewett February 09, 2012 at 02:13 PM
I like this idea, I would have felt better about the ceremony if they were given "most soccer goals" or "best blocker" or even "most spirited" on the trophy plaque.
Karsten Torch February 09, 2012 at 05:53 PM
Leigh - excellent post. This is one of the things that has always bothered me about the direction of kids' sports. Not keeping score because you don't want the losing team to feel bad; limiting scores during kids' games so that one team doesn't get just absolutely killed because, again, they might take a blow to their precious self-esteem; and not allowing cheerleaders to do cheers that say anything negative about the other side - all cheers have to be purely positive. Combine these with useless participation trophies, and you wind up wtih kids that can't handle the real world. Can't cope when they fail a class. Can't handle real life when things don't go their way. And most importantly, have zero drive to succeed. If they've always been taught it's OK to be mediocre, then they'll always be mediocre. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of this. I know I should come right out and say that, as I hide it so well, but there it is.....
Sharon Swanepoel February 09, 2012 at 07:16 PM
I heard a good analogy somewhere - can't quite remember where - maybe John Stossel. Do you want someone who didn't quite make the grade, but was always moved along so as not to hurt his/her feelings, packing your parachute?
Jason Brooks February 09, 2012 at 07:38 PM
As someone who played competitive sports as a kid, I don't see the harm in acknowledging someone's participation in a league, even if their team stunk. I coached my daughter's soccer team this fall and had a blast--and was thankful we didn't keep score--and so did she. Now, she knew at the end of every game that our team had gotten absolutely destroyed, but I reminded her that the league existed just to help kids learn the fundamentals of soccer, nothing more. I think the emphasis on everyone getting a trophy came about because of what awarding only the winners taught them--that they were demi-gods, somehow better than their teammates, somehow better than the world, all because they excelled at a particular sporting skill. That's entitlement too, you know?


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