Every parent wants their child to succeed and be happy. Seeing children sad, frustrated, or disappointed can tug at our parental heart strings like nothing else and our impulse is to protect our children from all the negative experiences they may feel in the world. While that impulse is a natural and good natured one, protecting our children from struggles in life could end up causing them more trouble as they age than it actually helps. As children grow, it is important to guide them through various parts of their development by modeling and shaping their behavior and the way they react to situations and the world around them. In each stage of development, children will encounter difficulties and during these crucial moments, if a parent is able to guide them through their struggles and not around them, they can learn how to succeed no matter what comes their way!
When discussing childhood struggles and how parents respond to them, many often ask the following question: “Should kids get participation trophies?”. Parenting has fluctuated a lot throughout recent (and not so recent) years. As children become adults and parents themselves, they often choose to parent their own children in one of two ways: either exactly the way their parents raised them or in stark contrast to their parents’ style. As a result, from a larger societal perspective, there have been a myriad of theories adults who manage groups of children (teachers, sports coaches, etc.) have begun to use. One of these changes in recent decades was the idea of a participation trophy, or a child earning a reward for “just showing up”. While this seems well-intentioned and designed to have every child feed good about their efforts, some criticize this trend stating that it decreases a child’s motivation and ability to improve their skills and do well. There are pros and cons for both sides of this argument, as is common with most arguments about the “best” ways to parent or teach children. Fundamentally, the central issue worth discussing about trophies and participation rewards involves how to give children support and praise for their accomplishments while instilling motivation, grit, and drive in them as well.
Many researchers have studied this dynamic and discovered that the participation trophy itself is not particularly problematic, but the overall messages on both sides of the coin from “there are no winners and losers” to “you are nothing if you don’t succeed and win” are what may harm a child’s ability to grow and thrive. The skeptics of participation trophies argue that the world is filled with disappointment and that kids need to understand that there are winners and losers in life and that they need to be okay with not getting everything they want. This is a valid and true statement, to a degree. But, the rigid emphasis of being either a “winner” or a “loser” in a game (or in life) is also not a great message to instill in our children. Similarly, people who advocate for less competitive play and more inclusive play experiences also have a point; assuming every child needs to be a winner is also problematic. But, not allowing kids to be recognized for effort and encouraging them to continue working to get better at things can also cause problems for children later on.
Here’s what the research says about child motivation and the best way to encourage it. Studies have shown that a harsh insistence on a child “winning” or succeeding in every activity they try has a debilitating effect on children when they have limitations or struggles succeeding. This can make a child blame themselves as a person for not being good at something instead of identifying that a particular activity isn’t their “thing” and trying to figure out what their “thing” is. This has led to children giving up more easily and avoiding the work that needs to be put into most things in life to become successful at them. However, when children are praised for the effort that they put into an activity, no matter the outcome, studies have shown that children are more apt to try harder, to put more work into their success, and to develop the grit that is needed to get them through the struggles they have in life.
Participation trophies may be useful to identify particular effort given to children who did not “win”, so long as the adults providing them discuss that the trophy or reward is based on the effort they put in and not the outcome. Trophies based on winning can also be used as a motivating factor but should also be provided with the discussion of the hard work the child put in to earn them, not just the outcome of the race, match, or game. Teaching children the benefits of hard work will lead to children to develop the internal motivation needed to succeed, not just in sports, but in life as well.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events