Don't Take Away Your Kid's Participation Trophy

Let a kid be a kid.

By Henry Adeleye on August 21, 2015 

A photo posted by James Harrison (@jhharrison92) on

As you may have heard if you're not living under a rock, a few days ago, a linebacker for the Steelers by the name of James Harrison took back the participation trophies his kids received, stating that trophies need to be earned, not given, that "sometime's your best is not enough."  Sure, this all sounds good for a Nike commercial, but did he have a point?  The universe subsequently went into an uproar, most people agreeing wholeheartedly with him.  Because "kids these days need to learn that winning is everything."  And, "back in my day, you only got a trophy if you lost an arm and scored the winning touchdown with 0.01 seconds left on the clock, during a hurricane."  And you can't forget, "giving a kid a trophy just for participating is what's making these kids so soft."  Sounds like the old case of revisionist history, believing everything that was done in the past is better than today. 


When I go back to my old childhood bedroom, I see over a hundred trophies sitting on the dresser.  We won some championships, but we definitely didn't win that many.  I got trophies for football, baseball, track, and gymnastics.  And even Boys Scouts, which isn't a sport.  In track, people got ribbons for sixth place.  The track only had six lanes.  The point is, getting consolation prizes is something that has been going on forever, not something solely related to today's kids.  A participation trophy doesn't mean you got something for nothing.  It means you showed up, came to practice, went to the games, and gave it your all.  How can we not reward kids for doing that?  That's like saying only the valedictorian should get a high school diploma, regardless of the fact that there were a lot of other people who stayed the course and didn't quit, even though they didn't come out on top.

When we are kids, we are taught that the world revolves around us, that everything and anything we do is great.  We build the self-esteem it takes to grow up and take chances, to learn things we've never seen before in our lives.  Science, social studies, foreign languages, technology, sports.  It's all new.   We're not going to always get it right the first time around, but it takes the building of confidence to know that if we just keep being persistent, we can get over that hump.  Adulthood comes in and messes everything up, teaching us to conform, that we need 10 years of experience to land an entry-level job, to only try something new if we're an expert already, and to stay put if we're not.  It's no wonder some of the most creative things are built by young people, or at least people who are young at heart. The trophy snatchers haven't caught up to them yet. 


No doubt, there's a certain detriment to always thinking you have to be rewarded to do something, but if you try your hardest at something new, you need some encouragement.  There's definitely a time to grow up, but there's also a time to be a kid, to not be discouraged, to not think of failure.  When the late Steve Jobs (who was adopted at birth) was a kid, his adoptive parents always overemphasized how special he was. This was more to counter his thoughts that his biological parents gave him up because he wasn't wanted than to build any kind of superhuman, but the belief started to stick with him. Eventually, it came to the point where he really believed he was special. And that led to him doing things most people could never imagine.  The belief came before the action.  How different the world would be if his parents told him that he had to earn that right, even as a kid. 

Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is just showing up.  That has to at least still stand for something.  Don't throw away your kid's participation trophy.  I'm sure they'll still know who wins and who loses.  They're not going to think that they came in first when they really didn't.  They're not going succumb to some kind of entitlement mentality.  They're going to be confident and ready to take on the world.  To do the things that we could never do.  To say the things that we could never say.  And there shouldn't be a "penalty" for that.