“We are teaching our kids that everyone can be a winner and there are no losers. Participation trophies only encourage entitlement and don’t teach life lessons.”
This is what I said before I had children. I stand by the rudimentary philosophical sentiment but in a realpolitik sense I was wrong. Allow me to explain.
Years ago, when my youngest son was four we signed him up for soccer. He didn’t really play soccer but we signed him up anyway. The truth is that, like most four year olds, he didn’t really know what he liked so we had him dabble in many things. Early in his first season we could see that he had a middling skillset and was moderately capable of physically competing.
However, after a few games it was apparent that he was struggling and he said he wanted to quit. In our arrogance and naiveness we forced him to continue and tried to encourage his progress. However, with each ensuing week he enjoyed it less and cried before and after each game.
Thinking we knew best we told him that he should not quit. Our rationale was not novel, we said what most parents say in this situation. We used the old standbys of “your team needs you” and “you have to finish what you started” as we tried to convince him to, at a minimum, complete the season.
Admittedly my child had not quite matured enough to understand an athlete’s perspective but, more importantly, I did not understand a four years old soccer player’s plight. Gradually, as I continued to grow as a father, I began to see the scene through my child’s eyes. My young son was playing a game he did not understand with kids he did not know. These kids were not patient and kind like he was taught in school but rather they were aggressive, physical and pushy. During exciting times of the game he had grown ups that he did not know yelling at him from the sideline. And he had to do all of this in shoes that were stiff and uncomfortable.
Ultimately, somehow my wife and I convinced my son to go to all eight games in the season. We told him that when he finished he would get a fancy gold trophy and he could show grandma when she came to visit. This promise of delayed gratification was just barely enough to push him to the last game. In his final game my son scored his first and second goal of the season.
He was a true champion that day and deserved a trophy. His team won only three games but all of the players deserved trophies, as did the teams that they played against. A few days after the last game my son asked me if he could play again the next season.
Yesterday, my son’s soccer team completed their season in the 10 year old league. His team won the championship 5-0. He was the goalie and allowed no goals, earning him MVP honors. He now loves to play and has made several close friends who he has continued to play with since that inaugural season as a four year old.
Just to think, the only thing that kept my son playing during the dark early times was that tacky plastic gold ornament.
Although this may be a heartwarming tale of a proud father, now comes the point of the story. Parenting is just preparing children for life. The goal is to imbue children with skills and values that they can carry with them into adulthood that will transcend into personal relationships and professional careers. Earning the respect of peers, appreciating physical activity, enjoying a healthy lifestyle, becoming a team player, respecting the referee and overcoming obstacles are lessons that can be learned through sports that will last longer than a soccer season. It may not be the only way or the best way but it is one way that can help a child succeed.
Exchanging a two dollar trophy for life lessons that can build self esteem and positive self image is a tradeoff that I will take every day of the week, even if I do contradict my naive pre-kid notions.
As a final note, I still understand the argument that if everyone gets the same reward regardless of output then the reward itself becomes meaningless. However, life will provide no shortage of opportunities to give your very best effort with a positive attitude to only result in a firm kick in the teeth. That is a lesson that will be abundantly available to all of us during our lives. I just don’t want to focus on that lesson for my kids quite yet.