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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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Trophies for all!

Uploaded: Aug 3, 2014
There are 61 trophies on display in our home. I have tried to convince my children to reduce the size of their collections, mostly because I am allergic to dust and trophies are dust magnets, but my efforts are met with a litany of protestations. My kids treasure the memories that each trophy holds.

There are those that argue that these participation trophies are bad for my kids. They believe trophies should only be awarded to kids who have accomplished something extraordinary, usually defined as winning, or doing something better than everybody else. The concern is that if kids receive a trophy just for participating, they will not strive to excel, they will have an inflated opinion of their abilities, and will be inadequately prepared for future challenges.

We recently attended the end-of-season swim team dinner, where everybody gets a trophy. The kids, about 120 of them, ranging from age 4 to 18, were all smiles as each swimmer was introduced, received a congratulatory handshake from the coach, and applause from teammates and parents. While there were a few additional awards for exceptional improvement and performance, the evening was a celebration of every swimmer without regard to skill level. It was a wonderful gathering that supported and encouraged all the kids to stay excited about the sport.

The trophy is a fun souvenir, but kids who spend months swimming countless laps while staring at a black line on a pool bottom, or sweating on a sunny softball field, or kicking soccer balls in the pouring rain, are more likely driven by intrinsic motivation, an enjoyment or passion of the activity itself, and this is exactly what should be encouraged. A recent column in The New York Times describes studies that show that intrinsic motivation is actually a vastly superior form of motivation than extrinsic or instrumental motivation, such as a desire to win. Making trophies artificially scarce places a heightened importance on winning and competition. Kids are already fully aware of how they measure up skill-wise, it is counterproductive to emphasize some kids' inadequacies by giving recognition only to those who are deemed deserving. All kids' intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of the activity should be encouraged.

In his recently published book, "The Myth of the Spoiled Child", Alfie Kohn summarizes an impressive body of research and concludes that in emphasizing competition in our kids' activities, "We teach them to confuse excellence with winning, as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others. We encourage them to measure their own value in terms of how many people they've beaten, which is not exactly the path to mental health. We invite them to see their peers not as potential friends or collaborators but as obstacles to their own success."

The way we can best support our children is to help them recognize what inspires them, and give them the confidence to set and pursue goals that are meaningful to them. A collection of dusty participation trophies can be a happy reminder of past engagement, and an encouragement to seek out opportunities to engage in the future.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by PR, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 3, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Yes!! Thank you, Sally!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 3, 2014 at 8:06 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, PR!

Posted by kirsten, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Aug 4, 2014 at 7:06 am

I appreciate the research you use to support your points about competition. It makes me consider what is the end goal of all this practicing? First place or a healthy, well adjusted, adult?

Thanks Sally.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 4, 2014 at 7:52 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Kirsten, for reading and commenting. I highly recommend Alfie Kohn's book, it is evidence based and challenges many of our culture's assumptions about the supposed benefits of competition.

Posted by Mother of 4 , a resident of Palo Verde School,
on Aug 4, 2014 at 8:15 am

I have mixed views about this. We also have myriad trophies collected over the years. One child has been savvy enough to "dump" all but those that pertain to a triumph, whereas another keeps all because of the memories of the friends on that team.

As the years pass and the memories get clouded, it is the memorabilia with special memories of a particular friend, coach, or occasion, that seem to be treasured most, it may be a trophy, a team picture, a t shirt or a hat, who can tell at the time.

I suggest that displayed or not, all these memorabilia should be kept - even those that have been dumped, in a box in the garage, so that they can be discovered again at some future date as a nostalgic reminder of a wondrous childhood. After all, a picture with a future sports star, a yearbook signed by a famous celebrity, or someone who tragically died young, can bring the memory back to life at some future date.

Posted by New in Town, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Aug 4, 2014 at 12:48 pm

I was always in the camp of dismissing "trophies for all" as something that makes kids soft, however I've come to realize that my kids might otherwise never be recognized for athletics. They go to every practice, root on their team mates, but are simply not as talented athletically as the vast majority of kids here. I want them to "stay in the game" for fitness, fun, teamwork and personal improvement. They look fondly on their trophies, ribbons, mementos even if their stats are near the bottom of the team.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 4, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Mother of 4,
Thanks for reading and commenting. It sounds like your kids each have their own reasons for enjoying their trophies. I appreciate your reminder that an item that may seem unimportant now could be of great sentimental value in the future. If I kept all of the memorabilia, though, we wouldn't be able to enter our garage! Sometimes when the clutter gets overwhelming and I need to do some culling, I have to reassure myself that it is the process, not the product. The kids carry the good experiences with them, whether there is a tangible item or not.

Dear New in Town,
Thanks for reading and commenting. You summarize beautifully the reasons we want all kids to participate in sports and other physical activities. If a trophy helps them remember how much fun they had, great!
There is no evidence that if a child knows they will receive a trophy, regardless of performance, that they will try less hard. It is well documented, however, that making awards scarce and continually singling out only the highest performers for recognition will discourage lesser achievers from participating again.
Ironically, singling out high achievers repeatedly for special recognition might not even be so great for the winners' future performance! Per Alfie Kohn, "studies have shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward." Extrinsic awards interfere with intrinsic motivation and can actually undermine excellence! For this reason, Alfie Kohn is not a big fan of trophies for anyone (losers or winners), but my sense is that if rewards are distributed for participation regardless of achievement, they do no harm, and as has been discussed by commenters here, help all the kids remember happy times and encourage their future participation.

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Aug 5, 2014 at 6:30 pm

So many different ways and reasons to enjoy sports. What most of us do as adults is because we just showed up as kids, discovered it was fun and kept doing it. I would have loved a trophy! Lots to think about. Thanks , Sally!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 5, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, LJ for reading and commenting. Fun is key!

Posted by father of 3, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 7, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Nicely written and thought out posting Sally, but I still am not in favor of the "participation trophy." I think my distate for them mirrored my 5 year old son's when on the last day of the soccer season everyone received a trophy, including a girl who showed up the first day to get her uniform, and showed up the last day to get her trophy. Nothing in between. He actually wouldn't take his, and left it in the box.

Rather than a trophy for showing up, I would award a trophy only to those who give their best efforts, whether that results in goals, points or runs scored, wins or losses, or not. We need to encourage "best effort" in all we do. That's what leads to greater achievements. And that best effort needs to include working their hardest in practice as well as in the games. Lay out the expectations at the beginning of the season, that only those that consistantly give their best effort will get the trophy, certificate, medal etc. And that includes kids who are on the winning team too. If a kid's team wins the league title and they did not always give their best effort, we should consider not giving them a trophy. And kids know when they are giving their best efforts, and good coaches will notice and recognize that too.
There's a difference in getting your kids to stretch and try an activity that they may not previously have an interest in, and have them give their best effort, versus just showing up and going through the motions. If we teach "best effort" at the earliest age, we give them the foundation for success in whatever they decide to do in life. The pleasure and emphasis does not have to come from beating someone else, but rather in challenging yourself to give it your all.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Aug 7, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Father of 3, do you really expect us to believe that when your 5 year old son left his participation trophy in the box that he was not picking up on your values? I will argue that if the girl did not participate, she should not be given a participation trophy, but that your attitude should not have spoiled his participation recognition.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 7, 2014 at 8:41 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear father of 3,
Thanks for reading and commenting. Giving one's all and accomplishing more than one thought was possible is a key aspect of why sports are a worthwhile endeavor. Those lessons serve us well in all aspects of life.
As a coach, though, I would be uncomfortable judging my players on effort and giving or withholding trophies based on that assessment. Particularly with kids, I might not be aware of something going on in their lives that affects their ability to consistently display best effort. I also find the studies showing the superiority of intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation very compelling. Having my players focusing on convincing me that they are trying their hardest is emphasizing my approval, which is an extrinsic motivator. I'd rather keep the focus on the intrinsic motivators like skill acquisition, game strategy, good sportsmanship, and playing as a team.

Posted by Mom of 3, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Participation trophies are okay up until a certain age, perhaps, 7? I know my third child was excited to get any trophy, and as little kids, it's nice for them to feel good. But participation trophies should end when the kids get older. My older children, as they aged, felt participation trophies were worthless and not meaningful, because they knew everyone got one. My softball trophy from Palo Alto Girls Softball League back in 1976 (6th grade) is highly cherished by me because we were the champion team. To earn a trophy is much more satisfying than owning a participation trophy. The next year, our manager gave everyone on the team trophies since he owned a trophy shop. Our team placed second, so those trophies, while larger than my 1st Place trophy, meant nothing to me.

Perhaps the happy medium is for the 1st Place team to be awarded a larger trophy and the rest of the teams get smaller, participation trophies. Or only award trophies to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place teams. But really, kids past age 7 should not need participation trophies. We grew up without participation trophies and accepted it. I think people don't try as hard if there is nothing to be gained (think socialism/Communism). And how many people would become teachers if they earned 6 figure salaries? Many more people would choose teaching.

Posted by father of 3, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 8, 2014 at 6:08 am

Recogition of "best effort" should also be extended to the classroom, through high school. My son attends a high school where the students receive two grades: one for academic achievement and the other for effort. Most school systems only reward and recognize academic achievement and this leads to kids giving up who are (or think they are) unable to be recognized for obtaining the highest grades. "Why should I even try, the A students are just so good at math, science etc." Recognizing best effort is also a great benefit to those top students for whom A's come more easily. Without recognition for their best efforts they can miss out on the opportunity to do extraordinary work that pushes themselves to do what they are capable of doing, not just to the limit that is academically rewarded. I have seen first hand the remarkable work produced and learning that goes on when best effort is rewarded. The academic achievement, and actual learning, flows.

Posted by father of 3, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 8, 2014 at 6:22 am

Sally, as a former coach myself, I say, yes, convince me that you are giving best effort, by coming early, staying late, practicing hard, helping your teammates get better, asking questions. Skill acquisition, game strategy, good sportsmanship, and playing as a team are all part of the experience, made more meaningful when you are giving your best effort on a consistant basis. I'm not worried that a player is trying to put one over on me by trying to "convince" me they are giving best effort. It's obvious, to me and the other kids. And a skill worth learning is being able to focus on the task at hand and putting those things from your personal life on the back burner for the couple of hours at practice or at a game. It's something that can be learned.

Posted by father of 3, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 8, 2014 at 6:26 am

To Parent: I at first told my son that he should take the trophy because he earned it and not to worry about the girl who did not. He's the one that didn't want to take it. I actually went back to the box and got it to give to him later, but he still didn't want it, so that was that. At the time participation trophies were just coming on the scene and I didn't know how I felt about them yet. He did.

Posted by xnocal, a resident of another community,
on Aug 8, 2014 at 9:39 am

AYSO in Long Beach stopped giving out participation trophies this year - it's about time. Last year my daughter's team did really well and won a tournament. For their efforts, they got a medal the size of a dollar coin. They also got a participation trophy, just like everyone else. My daughter has the medal prominantly displayed in her room. I couldn't begin to guess what she did with the trophy.

Make no mistake; there is nearly equal value in winning and losing. If you win you should get a trophy, if you lose you should not. To do otherwise diminishes the value of both experiences.

Posted by Keri, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Aug 8, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Nice article Sally! My kids appreciated the trophies when they were young, but now I would like to do something with them. Is there any way to recycle the trophies? Does anyone know of an organization that could use them? Thanks.

Posted by Dennis, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:42 pm

The kids that get rewarded for just participation are the ones that are going to get a real reality check as they grow up and move out into the world. This whole article is such a liberalized fantasy of life and what you want for yourself and not for the betterment of the child. Even they can see past this parental hogwash.

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Aug 9, 2014 at 6:55 am

Great discussion! May I say "Thanks for participating?" On public radio this morning the vote for and against participation trophies was deemed a tie.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Aug 9, 2014 at 7:25 am

Thanks for this post Sally. I have to admit that I've been torn on the issue of participation trophies.

I got about a million ribbons for swim team over the 10 years that I swam and the only ones I kept were the 1st-3rd place ribbons. The "Participant" ribbons all got thrown away. That said, most of us started competitive sports around 8-10 years old back then, instead of 4-5. Having now coached softball for 5 years, with kids aged 4-11, I'm a big proponent of the participation trophy. I don't believe a 4, 5 or 6 year old understands why some kids get a trophy and they don't. They just want to play and have a good time, and at that age, yes, they should be rewarded just for showing up. Actually, maybe it's the parents that should get the trophy for getting them there. ;)

As kids get older, they understand more about competition, and skills develop to the point that each one knows where he or she stands on the team. They may know that they aren't the best on the team, but that "participation" trophy assures them that they are on the right track with their efforts and they want to continue. All I ever want for the girls I coach is for them to want to play again the next year. If it takes a trophy for that to happen, so be it.

Posted by Eva Russell, a resident of Greater Miranda,
on Aug 17, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Good article, though I am not entirely in support of your view about participation trophies. For small children, especially those who don?t have much idea about winning and losing, a participation trophy is definitely a good idea. It will make them happy and encourage them to participate in more events. But for more grown up kids who knows more about winning and losing, a participation trophy doesn't have much value. Some of them just don?t care about and some others will just be satisfied with participation trophies and award plaques like from hoult-hellewell, Scarborough , instead of trying hard to win a trophy. As long as it stays healthy, a competition is essential to develop the skills of kids and they need to earn the trophy.

Posted by Janice, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 22, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Just get rid of trophies. Also, don't recognize first, second and third in a swim race. Then the kids can be happy with pure participation. Who cares who practices harder, or is more talented? We can get rid of grades and evaluations in school, too! We are all equal, right? In the end, why try to be better?

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 23, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thank you all for the interesting and thought-provoking comments. Most of the points raised here are discussed in depth in Alfie Kohn's book, which I mentioned in the blog post. He will be in our area in November speaking about these topics at the Common Ground Speaker Series. I'm not having luck posting the link here, but the information on his talks is on their website. He also has a talk in San Francisco, information is on his homepage.

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