James Harrison, linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has received a lot of attention for his plan to return trophies his sons received for participating in a sporting activity. He said, “I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.” Harrison went on to say, “Everything in life should be earned, and 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…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut you up and keep you happy.”
The pursuit of happiness
Over the last decade or so there has been a focus on so-called “self-esteem,” which has included an aversion to competition, criticism and correction in favor of praise, promotion and potential. We want our kids to succeed and to be happy. However, Barry Schwartz, professor at Swarthmore College, notes, “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing. But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”
Our discomfort with discomfort
Dan Kindlon, child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, says if kids can’t experience struggle and pain they won’t develop “psychological immunity.” As a result they won’t know how to deal with not getting the starring role, being cut from the team, or receiving criticism on a class paper. School faculty and administrators are now spending quite a bit of time responding to parental involvement in what should be a student’s responsibility to study hard, be prepared, and, on limited occasions, raise warranted concerns on his or her own behalf.
The adult journey
In the adult world, everyone does not get a trophy. The world of the adult is full of possibility punctuated by frustration and disappointment. Certainly we need to encourage our children, but we need also to prepare them for discouragement. When we reward our kids for participating—win, lose or draw—out of concern for their self-esteem, we are redefining the meaning of success.
Harrison’s life lesson seems right on. Kids develop self-esteem by tackling challenges, recovering from uncertainty and striving to do well. They build self-esteem by overcoming adversity. Parents stunt their child’s development by lowering those hurdles and expectations. Parents accelerate their child’s growth by helping them navigate through trials towards achievement—not through participation trophies.
All kids are not good at all things. However, every kid is good at something. Our job as parents is to help our children identify those things at which they excel and help provide the resources for them to be successful.