Can We Redeem "Everyone Gets a Trophy"?

You may have noticed, as I have, that "everyone gets a trophy" has become a shorthand phrase to describe the uber-entitled, narcissistic, everyone-is-a-special-snowflake world in which many of us are, apparently, raising kids. I've played devil's advocate with the narcissism thing before. I don't want to suggest that there isn't truth to this phenomenon. But as you know from reading this blog, I like exploring the nuances of stuff. What can I say, bumper stickers and catch phrases make me suspicious.

This particular issue hits home for me, because on my daughter's swim team, everyone who participates does indeed get an award. But there are other awards given out too. Big ones. Trophies for achievement: for being one of the top two swimmers in a specific age group. There is also a "coach's trophy"; it's a subjective award, given to the kid with the most hustle, the most heart. It is abundantly clear that there are differences between the participation awards and the achievement ones.

The latest research strongly suggests that generic, blanket praise is not effective for children. In fact, praising them for being "smart" or "good at art" can actually inhibit performance because it makes them less willing to take risks or do things that don't come easy. For feedback to be effective, for it to really motivate kids, it needs to be specific, and it needs to acknowledge effort. "I noticed you did these math problems without counting on your fingers---that's a first!" "You really kicked hard across the pool this time!" (It also needs to be true. Kids are great crap detectors.)

So the question is, which category does a participation trophy fall into? Is it an empty, generic expression of praise (not helpful), or is it a tangible acknowledgement of effort (helpful)? I think it's the latter, or can be if the coaches and parents frame it that way. It's simply another way of affirming commitment, which the research suggests is important feedback for the development of children. (By the way, report cards around here give grades for achievement and for effort. Useful information to have as a parent.)

Whatever the motivation for teams giving them out, perhaps we parents who care about these things can frame participation trophies in the latter way: as an acknowledgement of hard work, dedication, teamwork, and the decidedly mundane practice of showing up and trying your best. You know... those unsexy things that life is all about.

Call my kid entitled if you want, but Caroline is pretty proud of her swim award. It means something to her. When she gets home from school, she'd much rather relax and play for a while, but instead, she sits down and does her homework so she can make it to practice. Once school is out, she will get up and out of the house early each morning, something she is, shall we say, loath to do. She will stand around during those interminable meets for the chance to swim her one or two heats, and she will cheer for her teammates, including the ones who win blue ribbons every time. She will accept each participation ribbon for her heat and she will string them all together and display them on her dresser. She will do everything the coach asks her to do. She will rarely complain.

She will get stronger. And a little bit faster. And while she may yet surprise me, she is unlikely ever to break into the top group of swimmers. She will never get that top trophy. But she is earning her little trophy, my friends.

I agree with my friend Jan who says that we need people around us who will help us discern our gifts and those areas in which we are not particularly gifted. "We need to see ourselves as a balance of strengths and weaknesses," she writes. I agree. It seems like that's part of our job as parents, isn't it? It's also about discernment. "Good job" doesn't tell a kid anything. "You've been working on the butterfly for three solid weeks and you finally got it!" does.

So I try to describe reality as best I can. Sometimes that's wildly affirming: Caroline is ridiculously musical. She takes it upon herself to pick out complex melodies on the piano, singing along and adding her own chords. (Her latest is "Castle on a Cloud.") God has given her a gift in this area. And I tell her that. And when you have a gift, you work at it and play at it and seek the joy in it.

And in the case of swimming, her love for and dedication to the sport are her greatest assets. And I help her set good goals. Trying to beat the other kids is not a good goal. Trying to beat her own time, and trying to get across the pool in fewer breaths, are good goals.

And when she gets that trophy this year, it will mean something again.