How trophies just for showing up become a lifelong affair

‘Tis the season of sports trophies as the end of the school year approaches.

When our kids were younger, you could hardly place a book on a shelf with the number of trophies they had. That must mean they were incredible athletes who played on a lot of championship teams, right?

Uh, no, but they did show up.

The kids showed up for games in which scores weren’t kept (although they could tell you exactly what it was) so the message was, “Hey, it doesn’t matter if you practiced more, worked your butt off, are more skilled or had a more winning attitude on the field. We want to play down to the lowest common denominator and treat everyone equally. You’re special, just like everyone else. Otherwise, we might hurt some feelings and damage kids’ self esteem.”

Good grief.

At the end of every season, during the obligatory pizza party, shiny engraved golden globes were handed to each child, along with a healthy heaping of praise about how incredibly awesome they were and how much they contributed to the team.

Um, well, that’s not quite true. Kids are smart — they know a scam when they see one. If everyone gets a trophy, it quickly becomes devalued. The Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl trophy and the World Series trophy are given out to the best of the best, not second best and certainly not as a participation trophy.

When we were growing up, your trophy was a cast on your broken leg that you received blocking a ferocious shot and thereby saving the game. When asked, you could proudly tell the tale about how you actually earned your scars.

If the kids continue to play at the high school level, our experience is that they can be put on varsity teams even if they are only JV material — perhaps because it wouldn’t be “fair” to have a senior play on the JV team, or because their parents swooped in to threaten the athletic director and the coach found himself caught between a rock and a hard place.

There are winners and losers in life, so how do you teach children to be good winners or good losers if they don’t both win and lose? Kids who participate in sports in which scores aren’t kept don’t learn about disappointment, overcoming adversity, or achievement through hard work with the attendant feeling of accomplishment. Losing doesn’t feel good, but it does provide some important life lessons. It gives parents a golden opportunity to discuss those with their kids.

Unearned accolades get kids hooked on rewards, which translates to keeping score through the number Facebook friends or Twitter followers one has. The drive for reward plays out as kids reach adulthood.

Clothing retailer Lands’ End and Bank of America place a special emphasis on praise so their younger employees enjoy high self-esteem and feel good about themselves by having praise doled out in consistent dosages. Our friends have noticed their younger employees can be quite needy, wanting constant reassurance about what a great job they are doing — even if they aren’t. Some younger employees actually have the temerity to ask for entitlement raises — not for merit, but for simply showing up.

I haven’t heard of anyone asking for a medal for attending a conference, trade show or meeting, but could that be far behind?

Now, who is responsible for this disturbing turn of events? A vast conspiracy by the trophy industry? A master plan concocted by plastic and metal producers?

I wish it was. But it is parents who are guilty of this ridiculous praise cycle. Parents who volunteer as coaches and hand out the trophies, parents who serve on the local sports boards that create such inane rules as “no scoring,” parents who have words with the volunteer coaches about the amount of playing time their kid gets, parents who praise the kid even when they, frankly, stink. Parents who actually condone and encourage this behavior. And we’ve created some monsters — in both the kids and the parents.

Our four-year-old granddaughters will be getting into sports soon (their grandfather already has them out on the ice, and miniature hockey sticks are waiting for them in the hall closet). I really hope that they only get a trophy if they truly earn one.

Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.