Why My Kid Deserves a Trophy (and You Do, Too)

Jun 14 2012

Oh, dear. I know the Trophy Traditionalists will disagree with me. And I do hate being the harbinger of conflict, but I just can’t bring myself to believe that our loose trophy-giving morals are ruining America.

I want to you know I tried. I did. I went out back, I put on my sternest face, and I said, “All of this willy nilly, excessive trophy-giving is terrible. It’s sending the wrong message to our children. It’s contributing to a whole generation of lazy, entitled kids. And it’s gotta stop!”

But, alas, I lacked conviction.

You know what else?

I think people are special.

It’s true. I do.

Despite the empirical proof that no one’s special (the numbers say so!), I stubbornly believe the logical fallacies that we’re all unique and we’re all stand-outs in the crowd.

But how can you believe that, Beth? “All unique” is such an oxymoron!

I am so glad you asked because I’ve been asking myself the same thing for days, and it’s taken me this long to listen well to my gut reaction (which sounded a lot like “but, but, but…”) and turn discomfort into words that make sense.

The conclusion that I’ve reached is that hard data is important. It’s essential. It’s foundational. And it’s also not the whole house.

Hard data is a means to understanding. It’s a piece of the puzzle. And hard data is always dwarfed by the depth and complexity of human experience because numbers are too small to capture the breadth of a life lived or of mischief managed or of an imagination unlocked and set free.

I know. I know! I’m hopeless.

I’ve heard a lot lately about the trophies. The truckloads of trophies, you guys! Trophies that are tossed like confetti at every child for every achievement. Trophies for kids who participate in sports and art and academics… and in blowing their noses really, really hard. Or trophies for kids who think about blowing their noses really, really hard. And all of this nonsensical trophy-giving is a Big Deal in the world of child-rearing with the loudest voices telling us parents that we’re getting it wrong, wrong, wrong with our give, give, give.

Now, as far as I can tell, the Trophy Traditionalists’ motives are good. They seek to promote substance over style, and they want to reward real achievements instead of building in kids an absurd sense of entitlement. Their rallying cry is against lethargy and unearned privilege. And I agree with their motives.

But I fear that our national cry of “Too many trophies!” misses the mark because it sends a strange, mixed message:

We like to tell kids that it’s not winning that counts; it’s how we play the game. We tell them that the game is about working hard and about courage and about persistence in the face of defeat. And then we tell them that only the winners deserve trophies. When we do this, we send a message to our kids, loud and clear, that they’ve earned nothing until they’re on top. Until they’ve obliterated the competition. Until they’ve achieved more and better and bigger than their peers.

Is that really the message we’re hoping to send?

Is that really who we want our kids to be?

No wonder kids are confused. No wonder I am.

Now, sure. Many of our winners are hard, hard workers, and I don’t begrudge them their trophies. I’ll cheer our Olympic athletes this summer from the edge of my couch, and I’ll care about their victories and their defeats. I’ll care about their stories. I’ll care about what makes them tick. I’ll care about their extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. And I’ll care about the source of their strength. Winners matter. They do. Just as much as losers.

But you know who’s my real life hero? The mediocre athlete and poor academician I revere? The one I’ll cheer the loudest?

It’s my son, Ian.

My son, Ian, who’s never been on a winning team.

My son, Ian, who bravely battles his broken brain every day, not to compete well with his peers, but to simply communicate and survive.

My son, Ian, who’s a total punk and a raging butt nugget because he’s 12 and annoying.

My son, Ian, who’s sweet and sensitive and compassionate.

My son, Ian, who has one, tiny soccer trophy that he treasures because one year, one coach bucked the no-trophies-for-losers tradition.

My son, Ian, who is special no matter what the numbers say.

I say that the kid who keeps showing up at the field and at school without a prayer of winning – the kid who participates anyway – that is a kid who deserves a trophy. That is a kid who wins at tenacity, the same way that the gifted athlete wins the game. That kid should be praised and encouraged and, yes, that kid deserves a trophy as a physical reminder that we value the courage it takes to show up and play.

And you know who else deserves a trophy?

You do.

We do.

We mamas. We parents. We caregivers and teachers and friends.

Because, some days, the most courageous thing we do is show up. And then, because we are extraordinary, we work hard. We participate. We win. Sometimes. And we lose, and we lose, and we lose. And the next day, we choose to walk onto life’s field and do it all again.

And that makes us pretty darn special.