Why Participation Trophies Are a Bad Idea

January 12, 2018

As a company whose bread and butter comes from making trophies, awards, and plaques, it might surprise you where we land on the subject of participation trophies for kids. Don’t get us wrong we don’t hate them or believe the hype about them destroying an entire generation and we’ll happily design and make them. In fact, for some kids, we even think they might be just fine and we’re pretty sure our employees are just as divided as the rest of the country is on this issue.

 

Try testing the topic for yourself at your next dinner party and you’re almost guaranteed to start a potential food fight or worse when you mention the words, “participation trophy,” and every few months a major news outlet host a debate on the subject or writes an editorial about it. The issue itself has become a symbol for the generation gap between Baby Boomers/Gen-Xers & Millennials, and even psychologists don’t agree.

But First – A Brief History of Trophies & Medals

Trophies have been around for probably as long as there have been humans. However, they weren’t always what we picture when we think of them. In fact, to us today, what used to be a trophy is pretty gruesome. That’s because originally trophies were the spoils of war, and often body parts of slain enemies after a battle. We’re pretty sure that participation trophies during ancient times would not have been a thing and that parents weren’t arguing with each other over whether every child should or shouldn’t receive an arm from their opponent after every tournament.

 

As far as awards for winners of sporting events go, as early as ancient Greece, people who triumphed during Olympic games were given laurel wreaths. It’s unclear when trophies started to look more like what we know today, but by the late 17th century, silver chalice shaped awards were being given to winners of sporting events. Still, until relatively recently, trophies have always been associated with victory in competition and not just showing up.

Enter the Participation Trophy

By the 1960’s because of the advent of other materials like plastic, trophies could be mass produced and became more common. At this time according to an op-ed in the New York Times, the trophy industry started marketing them to teachers and coaches. As makers of trophies, we’re not sure this statistic is true. That’s because there’s a huge difference between the trophy industry and toy companies and others who make plastic replicas of things like trophies and the real deal.

 

There is more agreement that the “participation trophy” emerged in the 1980’s, around the time the first children of the millennial generation were entering school and peewee sports leagues. Some people say it’s because of Dr. Spock and reactions to more strict and authoritarian child-rearing styles of previous generations. But according to the HBO Real Sports documentary  “Trophy Nation,’ it all started here in California in the late 1980’s with an initiative to help inner city kids have higher self-esteem. So not our fault.

When a Trophy Is a Good Idea

No matter what you believe about when and why the idea of getting a trophy or an award for just showing up started, there is some consensus amongst experts on child development that participation trophies for preschool to kindergarten age children could improve their self-esteem and desire to participate in a sport. But at around 5 years old, most children start to think about winning and by age 7 or 8, according to developmental psychologist Susan Harter in an NPR feature on kids and winning.

When Participation Trophies Aren’t Okay

So when children enter 2nd grade, it’s probably time to stop making every team win and time to stop giving every child a trophy and start letting kids compete to get better and to win. Most kids understand when they aren’t playing well and can see through an award for just being on a team or playing a sport.

 

You aren’t really helping your child feel better about not winning by insisting they get a trophy for just playing. In fact, when your child gets older, them getting a participation trophy is more about you and your feelings than theirs. But while there’s nothing wrong with a trophy for effort, a trophy for just showing up isn’t important to them and might make them feel worse. And if competitiveness presses your buttons as a parent, perhaps you can get behind trophies for best teamwork or most improved as well as for the winners and most valuable players.

The Myth of the Participation Trophy Generation

No matter where we or any of our individual employees stand when it comes to participation trophies, we do believe that the millennial generation wasn’t ruined, let alone ruined by receiving so-called awards for participation. We concede that the bulk of the heated debate and ugly comments on either side online has more to do with the age-old generation gap and misunderstandings between generations than it does with most children in a generation receiving trophies. All the members of the “participation trophy generation” are just as hardworking as our non-millennial employees. And regardless of whether the participation trophy stays around forever or finally goes away, we still have plenty of trophies to create for winners of events and to recognize achievements in sports, business, entertainment, education, the military and beyond.

 

So what do you think? Do you believe participation trophies are a good idea or do you think they’re destroyed the work ethic of an entire generation? Let us know in the comments below.

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