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Participation Trophies vs the Real World

Lori Freson

Responsibilities & Values

When I was growing up, I remember that we had winners and losers. The Olympics awarded gold, silver and bronze metals to the winners, and everyone else did not win; they were the losers. School sports and professional sports always had a winner and a loser. Once your team lost enough games, you were simply eliminated and no longer advanced in the competition. There were no consolation games or prizes. When you lost, you knew you lost, and you might get upset or angry, but you accepted it and you moved on.

These days, however, it seems that there is a need for everyone to be a winner or to feel that they are somehow special and worthy of excessive praise and admiration. There are those who believe that by repeatedly telling your child how amazing they are and by constantly rewarding every effort, that this is how you build self-esteem and confidence. I adamantly disagree. Not only is it not the way to build healthy, strong and resilient individuals, it actually creates dysfunction. Treating our children this way is creating obnoxious, spoiled little brats who grow up to be lazy, entitled adults who cannot function in the real world.

What message does it send to our children when we reward them for mediocrity or worse? What value does a collection of meaningless plastic and aluminum trophies hold for them? I can assure you, absolutely none. I have seen and heard of countless kids who reach a certain age and just throw all of that meaningless stuff away. But remember how proud you were when you actually earned and won the trophy or the reward? The constant rewards become meaningless, and we are destroying our children’s motivation and incentive to work harder.

Remember when you used to lose or be told you weren’t good at something? And then you would passionately work really hard to get better? This virtue is essentially non-existent in our youth today, because we have created a culture of indifference to winning or losing. Everyone believes they are so special, because they’ve been told it so many times that they believe it. But it’s simply not true.

Yes, every child deserves to be loved and praised for their efforts and accomplishments. But they also deserve to know that they are no more or less special than anyone else, that what will really help them stand out is hard work and dedication. They also deserve to learn what it is like to fail, to lose, to not succeed. Nobody is good at everything. Stop lying to the children. Don’t give trophies to everyone. Perhaps a small pin or paper certificate would be more appropriate.

Instead of the losers playing each other in that consolation game, how about the losers go home? How about you tell your son or daughter that it was a good effort, but this time it just wasn’t enough. Talk about what they did well and what they could do to improve next time. Help them learn the ability to cope with and handle the disappointment and turn it into passion and motivation. This is where self-esteem grows, and this is an important life skill.

The real world can be a tough place. If we want our children to be prepared to navigate it and succeed, we must do a better job. It’s okay for them to know there are some things they are good at and some things they aren’t good at. This is normal. They can focus on the things they are good at, and work hard and also learn to compensate for their weaknesses. It is important that they understand the importance of working hard at school or at a job.

This is how you get ahead, not just because you want something therefore you are entitled to it. In the real world, you don’t get something for nothing. Sometimes, even when they try really hard, they will fail. They should know this and experience this many times before adulthood. Otherwise, we end up with a bunch of adults with no experience or tools for handling their life’s problems.

So, what can you do to help change this troubling pattern? In addition to the conversations that you ought to be having with your own children, and the values you must instill in them, you also have an obligation to speak up. Speak up at the school and speak up to the soccer club. Speak up to the officials of a contest or anywhere else that you see this participation trophy and constellation game/prize happening. Discuss the ways that this might be hurting our children.

When enough people speak up, then and only then will things start to change. Your child will grow up and be an adult one day. Their boss won’t really believe that they are as special as you or their coach thinks they are. Bosses know that employees are dispensable and can be easily replaced with others who work harder and have a better attitude. Nobody likes to hire entitled, spoiled brats, so make sure your kid isn’t one.

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Lori Freson

Lori Freson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California. She has been working in the mental health field since 1997, and has been a licensed therapist since 2002. Lori currently works in her own thriving private practice in Encino and Sherman Oaks, where she serves the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles areas.