Should we ditch the ‘thanks for coming out’ participation trophies?

James Harrison giving back kids' participation trophies
Is it time to do away with "participation" awards? Vote in our poll. James Harrison, Instagram

TORONTO — If you’ve ever played on a team or put your child into sports, you’re familiar with the “participation” trophy (or medal or ribbon). Regardless of the form it takes, many — including Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison — feel kids should not receive an award just for showing up.

The 37-year-old football player has received a lot of praise for an Instagram post he shared over the weekend, in which he announced his plans to return his sons’ newly-acquired participation trophies. Essentially, because they didn’t earn them.

“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…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better,” he wrote.

The post reignited a debate that’s been around for years: should we get rid of participation trophies altogether?

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A couple of years ago, a youth football program in Keller, Texas did just that.

Those who support participation awards believe they’re a nice memento, give kids a sense of accomplishment as well as motivate them. To them, it’s not all about winning.

Critics of participation awards might borrow a page from Top Gun, though, and say “there are no points for second place.” These awards, they argue, simply reward failure and turn kids into under-achievers who think you just have to show up to succeed.

What do psychologists say?

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University of Toronto psychology professor Gary Walters explained that over the last generation, parents have prioritized building their children’s self-esteem. That’s meant rewarding “everything” for fear that “the poor child” will suffer from a lack of confidence.

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“So every five-year-old on the soccer team gets a participation medal whether they were competent or not. [This has helped] contribute to the developing culture of narcissism and ‘look at me’-ishness,” Walters said, citing Facebook as an example.

READ MORE: Telling your kids they’re special? You’re raising little narcissists, study warns

“Lots of thoughtful people are worrying about the end result…in terms of lack of competence with respect to acquiring the instrumental behaviour necessary to figure out the world. In the extreme, a sort of learned helplessness.”

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck would likely agree. She’s previously said a trophy should reward something, even if it’s improvement or team spirit.

Her research has also revealed there can even be pitfalls to “deserved” praise: Praising a child’s intelligence can undermine the child’s motivation and performance, making them more likely to cheat to succeed after a failure or run from a challenge.

READ MORE: How parents’ expectations influence kids’ academic career

She has encouraged parents to “praise wisely.” So rather than praise a child’s intelligence or talents, praise “their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This process creates kids who are hardy and resilient.”

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