There are those that argue that these participation trophies are bad for my kids. They believe trophies should only be awarded to kids who have accomplished something extraordinary, usually defined as winning, or doing something better than everybody else. The concern is that if kids receive a trophy just for participating, they will not strive to excel, they will have an inflated opinion of their abilities, and will be inadequately prepared for future challenges.
We recently attended the end-of-season swim team dinner, where everybody gets a trophy. The kids, about 120 of them, ranging from age 4 to 18, were all smiles as each swimmer was introduced, received a congratulatory handshake from the coach, and applause from teammates and parents. While there were a few additional awards for exceptional improvement and performance, the evening was a celebration of every swimmer without regard to skill level. It was a wonderful gathering that supported and encouraged all the kids to stay excited about the sport.
The trophy is a fun souvenir, but kids who spend months swimming countless laps while staring at a black line on a pool bottom, or sweating on a sunny softball field, or kicking soccer balls in the pouring rain, are more likely driven by intrinsic motivation, an enjoyment or passion of the activity itself, and this is exactly what should be encouraged. A recent column in The New York Times describes studies that show that intrinsic motivation is actually a vastly superior form of motivation than extrinsic or instrumental motivation, such as a desire to win. Making trophies artificially scarce places a heightened importance on winning and competition. Kids are already fully aware of how they measure up skill-wise, it is counterproductive to emphasize some kids' inadequacies by giving recognition only to those who are deemed deserving. All kids' intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of the activity should be encouraged.
In his recently published book, "The Myth of the Spoiled Child", Alfie Kohn summarizes an impressive body of research and concludes that in emphasizing competition in our kids' activities, "We teach them to confuse excellence with winning, as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others. We encourage them to measure their own value in terms of how many people they've beaten, which is not exactly the path to mental health. We invite them to see their peers not as potential friends or collaborators but as obstacles to their own success."
The way we can best support our children is to help them recognize what inspires them, and give them the confidence to set and pursue goals that are meaningful to them. A collection of dusty participation trophies can be a happy reminder of past engagement, and an encouragement to seek out opportunities to engage in the future.