Participation or results: How should we reward children’s competitions?


Fact Box

  • A 2015 State of the Kid survey revealed that 60% of kids approve of participation trophies
  • NFL linebacker James Harrison became the honorary spokesman for the anti-participation-trophy movement when in 2015, he said on social media that he returned his children’s participation trophies, and would only allow them to keep trophies that they earned. 
  • The idea of participation trophies in America dates back to the 1920s
  • According to research, more than 90% of parents think competition is important in their children’s education and that it prepares them for later in life.

Sharon (Results)

Children’s competitions offer many valuable lessons and learning opportunities that can be diluted by the everyone-gets-a-trophy approach. While focusing on rewards based on results can yield disappointment for some, dealing with that defeat is a valuable life lesson that should not be avoided. It prepares children with the skills they need to succeed as adults, when the stakes are much higher.

There is much to be learned from losing. Perhaps that’s the very first thing to learn about losing. Learning to lose with grace is every bit as important as learning to be a gracious winner. Good sportsmanship, including the ability to admire a competitor’s accomplishment and to be able to offer sincere congratulations despite your own disappointment or upset, promotes self-control and good character.

It is valuable for children to see hard work and talent rewarded and also to experience the consequences of not working hard. Skilled parental guidance can help a child shift from sorrow at falling short to crafting a plan for improved performance via clear-eyed self-assessment, strategy development, and goal setting--an extremely valuable skill set for adulthood.

Generic participation trophies have little merit attached to them; even children know that. So, they don’t really accomplish their purpose of building self-esteem. True and lasting self-esteem comes from real accomplishments. Rewards should reflect that, making trophies truly represent something to be proud of, rather than just glorified souvenirs. However, focusing on results doesn’t have to mean only focusing on winning. Significant improvement through dedicated effort is also a result.

Fariyal (Participation)

'Better luck next time!' 'You're not working hard enough to win!' These are some typical statements that children hear from their parents or peers when they don't happen to win a competition. However, what people fail to realize is that these statements are toxic and have an adverse psychological effect on children, which can hinder their growth and motivation.

Competitive behavior is fostered amongst children when basing rewards on results. And the ensuing pressure to win and outperform other children can cause an imbalance in their lives--with the accompanying stress potentially bringing other activities to a halt. Additionally, fear of failure is a demotivating factor in children, ultimately leading to procrastination.

Rewarding children based on participation, however, helps them to develop motivation, self-confidence, and dedication. With such rewards, children are encouraged to take on more challenges without fearing failure and follow a path that can lead to greatness. A recent study revealed that 97% of children who had been praised for their efforts/participation in taking an easy test, went on to take a harder test voluntarily. In contrast, only 67% of those appreciated for their intelligence did the same. Moreover, participation trophies also instill in children a sense of belonging that they may not have otherwise, and can even help them retain their innate motivation and optimism.

Rather than focusing just on winning, rewarding for participation enables children to develop the mindset that with a new challenge comes more experience and education.

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