The young lady was sincere – and deadly serious. Even though she is single with no children on the way, she had already developed a parenting strategy to use on her future offspring.
"I want my future kids to fail," she said. "I don't want them getting a trophy or ribbon for everything they do," she said. "That's not real life. Not everyone can win, and if we don't teach our kids that, the real world will." While her heart was in the right place, it was pretty plain she hadn't given her plan enough thought.
I recalled nearly 30 years ago, when my eldest was just old enough to be a Tiger Cub and went to his first Pinewood Derby. Back then, Tiger Cubs were thought to be too young to handle the tools necessary to create wooden racers, so he and the other boys in his den weren't allowed to build entries. But local Scout leaders made up for it by allowing older Cub Scouts to "loan" the little guys their cars for a special race. There was no winner; instead, each Tiger Cub received a three-inch-tall plastic loving cup – the kind that you can buy for less than a dollar at most party stores. They were so excited; you would have thought they had just won the Daytona 500.
The story doesn't end there. The next year, my son built his own car and won the district Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Jeffrey went on to acquire dozens of awards through sports and other activities; enough that we didn't have room to display them all and most wound up in boxes in the attic. But until the day he left for college, there on his bedroom shelf sat his district Pinewood Derby trophy – and right next to it was that tiny loving cup.
"Participation awards" are nothing new. In fact, my first award was a purple ribbon given for entering – you guessed it – a Pinewood Derby. In the decades since I got that ribbon, participation awards have acquired a rather unseemly reputation. There are those who say they only exist to make losers feel like winners without putting out any of the effort. It's the award you get "for just showing up" and it has come to define entitlement among today's generation. And it's shaming a lot of parents into depriving their children of some really great experiences. "Showing up" is not a bad thing. In fact, there's something
far worse than "showing up." It's called doing nothing. To never get out and experience a new sport or activity. To never get involved in a club or organization or anything outside the comfort zone. For children, participation awards are the incentive that gets them to try new things, the reward for showing up for every practice, and the catalyst to come back and try it again next summer.
The reason some adults hate participation awards is really pretty simple. Those are the people who put too much emphasis on winning, especially if it involves their own children. We all want our kids to be winners, and you can't have winners unless somebody loses. They feel participation awards rob their children of the chance to be winners, and they ignore the fact that they're almost always given to children at an age when the emphasis should be placed on learning how to play the game, instead of the competitive aspect of it.
Do participation awards define your child as a loser? Not in the least. I look back at my own boys. Jeffrey is the proud owner of a state football championship ring. Chase has been awarded two Army Achievement Medals. Garrett is an Eagle Scout. All of them are successful, none of them are lazy ... and each of them received participation awards at some point of their lives.
As parents, it's not our job to teach our kids to fail. It is our job to teach our children how to be resilient so that when they lose, they'll rebound and be successful the next time around.
And the next time you hear people griping about someone "getting a trophy just for showing up," remember that there's a dirty little secret they won't dare tell you ... they've got participation awards in their trophy cases, too. It's no reason to be ashamed. •
Keith Mitchell is the Director of Communications and Public Information at Lawton Public Schools. He is a nationally award-winning education writer. He and his wife have three sons.