Should kids get trophies for participation?

When my kids were in elementary school, they received little trophies each year just for running in the jog-a-thon fund-raiser. Speed or agility didn’t matter. The number of sponsors and the amount you raised didn’t matter. You could get a trophy just for the fact that you showed up and ran.

Participation was expected. Required, even. Sure, the biggest money-raisers and fastest runners got bigger and better prizes, but everybody went home with a trophy. Not just a certificate but a full-fledged, shiny, engraved trophy.

Same thing for some athletic teams my kids played in. That may have been park and rec. All I know is that when my son was in high school cleaning out his room, at one point he filled an entire garbage bag with these dust-collectors. He had other more memorable ones, like “Best Defense”, but he had over a dozen participation trophies. Those were the ones he was fine with putting in a garbage bag and throwing away.

No surprise there. They meant nothing, really. Just that he showed up for the race.

My point? Seems that the past thirty years or so, we reward children just for being there. It has nothing to do with sweat, effort, motivation, ability, or skill. We’re so concerned about making kids feel good that we give them trophies for doing virtually nothing.

How is this helping them? I would venture to say it gives a false sense of accomplishment. So do careless compliments. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but possibly counter-productive, as discussed on previous posts regarding children’s artistic endeavors.

Many people might agree with the basic ways to encourage creativity, by offering materials and experiences, freedom of choice, and not being afraid of messes.

But I’m hearing a variety of opinions on the best way to give spoken feedback. I invite you to join this discussion.

As I’ve said before, I agree with Pablo Picasso’s assessment of children’s creative genius:

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“Every child is an artist.
The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
–Pablo Picasso
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Everybody is born creative but for some people, imagination gets lost along the way, often in early childhood.

My blog readers have mentioned a variety of reasons why imagination gets squelched at such an early age. Several have weighed in regarding the best kind of feedback, particularly from adults talking to children. Some of that is in the post Ode to Broken Crayons in the comments section.

Via Towne Post Network on Visualhunt

I’d love to continue this dialog, because there’s much more to be said. As one reader pointed out, we each respond differently to different kinds of encouragement. What’s the most valuable kind? How do we discern that in different kinds of kids?

And not just with kids, but as adults? What kind of encouragement motivates you?

Here’s a paraphrase of some comments on the Ode to Broken Crayons post:

• Do you think children’s responses to encouragement could be as varied as their learning styles?

• A successful art project isn’t just measured by fulfilling rubric requirement but by how much emotional impact is felt by the viewer/reader.

• How about not just saying, “Great job. I liked it” and not just listing the components (as on a rubric), but using a combination? Perhaps saying something like, “I like how the thick lines counter the thin ones, and how the circles stand out from the squares.”

• Perhaps there’s a place for both the vague “Great job” response and the more specific personal responses to an artist’s style or content. Either one could lead on a path to further discussion.

• It’s tricky for instructors (or parents) to know which responses inspire each student and apply that knowledge.

• Maybe kids should learn to recognize that most adult responses are meant to be helpful, not hurtful, and should come to realize which kind of responses are most meaningful to them.

• Somebody should write a book called The 5 Languages of Encouragement.

Well . . . somebody did! But not regarding children and/or creativity. Gary Chapman, the same author of The 5 Love Languages, wrote The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, along with Paul White.

Gary Chapman, with Ross Campbell, also wrote a wonderful, practical book called The 5 Love Languages of Children. I found it very extremely useful while raising my kids and I highly recommend it. The book identifies five different ways that children experience love from others. It explains how to determine your own child’s love language and the most effective methods to convey your love to him.

But there’s still the dilemma about how to give verbal feedback to children’s creative projects. Or to adults who are learning and experimenting.

Considering the reader comments above, here’s another thought about responding to art with praise. There’s a huge difference between “Great job! I really enjoyed the story” and offering thoughtful comments that show the reader was engaged. Personally, I love to hear from a reader so involved with my characters that she comments on their actions and dialogs as if she’d been there, and is happy, angry, or frustrated about characters’ decisions. What better compliment can a writer receive?

Another thing that tells me I’ve done well is when readers ask questions about the story, the ideas for my plot, the inspiration for characters, etc. This, too, shows engagement, and goes a lot further than just a pat on the back.

That’s different than merely filling out a checklist or rubric. The strong emotional response tells me that I effectively met the rubric requirements! But it’s also avoiding the typical vague labels of “good” or “great” that can sometimes be meaningless. As meaningless as a jog-a-thon trophy.

After all, what is “good”? What’s “great”? Are those terms used as a cop-out when we don’t know which specific aspects to address? Do we use them when we haven’t really paid attention but need to say something “positive”?

Consider, too, how the source of the compliment can make a difference—whether it’s a person whose opinion you value, an expert in his field, a mentor, a friend, a parent, a teacher. Are these praises coming from somebody who knows what he’s talking about, from someone who doesn’t easily hand out compliments, or from someone who says “Great job” to everybody without thought?

So I have a question for YOU. No right or wrong answers here. I really want to know.

Answer this question whether you’re recalling a situation as a child or adult, whether you think you’re creative or not. Maybe you can pinpoint a time someone stifled your imagination and it had long-range consequences. Or perhaps you’ll recall a time when someone’s helpful words encouraged you to carry on.

What is meaningful and helpful feedback for YOU when you’re embarking on (or have finished) a creative project? Not a “no fail” project, but one in which you’ve had to invest a bit of yourself? Please share examples if you have any, past or present.

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

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12 thoughts on “Should kids get trophies for participation?

  1. Oh my. I agree so wholeheartedly that participation trophies are meaningless (And the children know it. My boys knew when they were fairly decent at something, and when there were others more decent than they.) But I would rather live in a world where “Good try!” greets strike 3 at Little League instead of jeers and mocking. Especially when the players are young.
    When I was growing up, compliments were sparse. My very loving parents didn’t want us to get “big heads.” Today I am not a super confident person and can be quite self-critical. But I don’t think it is my parent’s fault for not giving false praise, or keeping honest praise to a minimum! I’m starting to think I am hardwired that way.
    While I tend to error on the side of over-praising, I hope my boys and grands realize it isn’t just my love expression, but because I love them so much I see everything they do with rose-colored glasses.

    1. I have found myself going to the opposite extreme with certain things, in contrast to my childhood. Maybe it’s hard to find the right balance without first overdoing it.

        1. The idea that external rewards, particularly when not even earned, don’t work at all. As a matter of fact, they can even be counterproductive, making children feel that they are “entitled.”

          1. Yes, entitlement is real.
            I ran a creative arts competition for years. Each child’s work was publicly displayed and acknowledged for something special about it. And each work received prizes that encouraged the child to continue creating, but there were three different categories of awards, so the prizes were different.
            Most everyone was ecstatic about the program, and the students learned so much, working harder and harder each year to get to the next category.
            But I did get parents every year who would complain that their child didn’t get the same prizes as someone else. (Oh, well. Some also complained that I didn’t offer bottled water. 😉 )

          2. I wish I could’ve seen the creative arts competition you ran! Sounds like the kids were extremely engaged and motivated. Even so, it’s tough with prizes and parents’ expectations.

            Unfortunately, no matter what you do, somebody will always complain. Even if you had offered bottled water, someone would have grumbled that it was the wrong brand. 🙂

  2. So many thoughts here 🙂
    I think the idea behind the “everyone gets a medal” was originally a good one, especially in team sports–because you’re a team, and you win or lose as a team. I could be wrong, but I think everyone on the winning team of the Superbowl gets a ring whether he sat on the bench or played in the game, right? (If I’m wrong, ignore that example 😉 )

    It might be that little Johnny who can hardly run and kick the ball at the same time has worked harder all season than Billy who scored a hat trick every game. That said, I think little Johnny would appreciate a medal for “Hardest worker” than just a participation trophy–something that acknowledges to him and the rest of the team that the coaches know he contributed something.
    A real life example: My daughter received the MVP award one year for cross country. Not because she came in first every time or even second (like several of her teammates did). But because of her “last place on the team” time. Yes, her other four teammates came in much faster, but because she PR’d one meet and beat out two runners from other teams, her time helped her whole team win the meet.

    So I guess that’s where I think the line needs to be drawn. Don’t give some empty “You showed up” award, but acknowledge what they actually did to contribute–if they contributed something.

    1. I agree. Your theoretical “Johnny” should be regularly encouraged for his persistence. My son got the “Perseverance Award” in 5th grade basketball because he never gave up, though his skills left much to be desired. I was proud of him for working so hard in spite of not being a strong player. I think the main thing is to acknowledge any hard work and efforts, even if the results aren’t stellar. All good efforts should be affirmed and encouraged. Also, being part of a winning team is great, but some team members get the glory just for riding in on the coattails of others. The problem rests in kids (or adults) who expect accolades for doing minimal work or nothing . . . or for just showing up.

      Seems like your daughter’s coach had an understanding of how each person benefits the team, not just the fastest ones. I’m sure that MVP award meant a lot to her.

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