Participation Trophies Turn Your Kids Into Dicks

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Humans did just fine without participation trophies for most of the past few millennia, so why do we think every kid deserves one today just for showing up?
Humans did just fine without participation trophies for most of the past few millennia, so why do we think every kid deserves one today just for showing up?

Instagram blew up this week over something Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison posted Sunday. He took away trophies his young sons received for participating in organized sports.

Rather than paraphrase, here’s what he said: “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and 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.”

Well, that stirred up a wave of shit. One example came from Jon Bois, who wrote a column on the website SB Nation titled “Participation Trophies are Great.” His four main points are:

  • “Kids should be allowed to exist outside the meritocracy and appreciate themselves”
  • “Kids aren’t as stupid as you’re worried they are”
  • “I’d rather my kid feel good than superior”
  • “This isn’t really a point but I wanted to say it in big letters: y’all hollering about participation trophies are weird and have bad ideas, but it’s not too late for you, just stop being a dipshit.”

Well, this dipshit and former Little League baseball and soccer coach begs to differ (and yes, the league gave everyone a trophy).

Let’s start with Bois’ first point about kids existing outside the meritocracy and appreciate themselves. I want to be a fly on the wall when his kid comes home with straight Fs on his report card. “Dad, don’t get bent out of shape. I am existing outside the meritocracy and can’t be bothered to learn subtraction because my day is full of self-appreciation.”

Next, he points out that kids aren’t stupid, writing, “When I was seven, all the other kids on the softball team got the same participation trophy I did. We all understood that this was not a signifier of merit, it was a signifier that we went out and played.” Let’s step back a minute. You need a signifier that you went out and played? Why? Apparently your friendships and memories weren’t enough. You needed a $10 piece of plastic? I am not buying it, and neither are the kids.

Third, I’d rather my kid feel good than superior. Bois (whom I have never met and who is probably a charming fellow, despite being horribly wrong on this point) and I are of one mind on this. Self-esteem should never come at the expense of others. I fail to see how a trophy for turning up has anything to do with that, however.

As for bad ideas, I would point out that human civilization did just fine without participation trophies for most of the past few millennia. The grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment — no participation trophies and not bad ideas either.

In truth, I never won a championship trophy and spent a lot of time on the bench in baseball, so not many all-star awards came my way either. What I learned was that I was not a top athlete, but rather I was a much better scholar. I am a nerd, not a jock. And maybe, over-valuing jockdom is the real problem.

Actually, I believe that a swift kick in the butt is often better than boosting unwarranted self-esteem. One of the greatest things that every happened to me was a failure. I failed to gain admission to Stanford University. It pissed me off. It pissed me off so much I graduated from the University of Colorado in under two calendar years and got a doctorate from the London School of Economics 30 months later. Thanks, Stanford. The kick in the butt I received from its admissions committee had a greater impact on my life than a diploma from its board of regents ever could.

I also believe in awards. I don’t know that we need to take it to the level the British have with an entire hierarchy of medals and titles handed out twice a year (if Her Majesty is reading this, though, I really would appreciate a duchy or something in recognition of my service to Britain by leaving it). But recognition of achievement is worthwhile. When you meet a soldier with the Congressional Medal of Honor, you are in the presence of bravery. When you meet a Nobel Laureate, you are in the presence of genius.

In “Alice in Wonderland,” the Dodo suggests a Caucus race. Everyone runs in any direction and pattern he or she wishes, everyone wins, and everyone gets a prize. It was meant as a satire, folks.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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