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

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.




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23 responses to “Why My Kid Deserves a Trophy (and You Do, Too)”

  1. I just finished reading two books by Gary Schmidt – okay for now and the wednesday wars. If you havent read them check them out, because even though my boys arent in middle school yet, the way he captures the awkward grace of middle school boys is incredible.

  2. I absolutely agree that “showing up” is often the most courageous thing we can do. But overall, I’m a Trophy Traditionalist. You want to be the best mom you can be for the sake of your kids, when nobody is watching, regardless of the reward.

    As a coach I tell my kids “get better every day” without any reference to who is fastest, strongest, or best. It’s about the personal challenge of finding their limitations and strengths, and finding a way to better them. I think the pursuit of the trophy matters more than the trophy itself, and our reactions to the success or failure of the venture is the larger prize. I won a lot of trophies, medals, and ribbons in football, wrestling, and track. They all went in a box, and eventually the box got thrown out. I also came in second, third, fifth, whatever a lot more than I won. Both experiences had great merit.

    Like Vince Lombardi said (c’mon, I’m a football coach, you know I had to) “Winning isn’t a sometime thing, it’s an all the time thing.”

  3. I am not a supporter of trophies. Not at all. I know Ian. I have had many meaningful conversations with Ian, and every time he successfully makes me understand what it is he wants to talk about, he has accomplished something HUGE. He has worked HARD. He has done HIS absolute best. How is a person’s absolute best of less value than the effort other people give to things that come easily to them?

  4. I am a “trophy traditionalist”; I believe that if everyone gets a trophy it negates the specialness of ANY of the trophies. That said, the part about Ian made me cry a little. For a humor blog, this site makes me cry a lot! That’s not a criticism!

  5. My personal take on this comes with a story…
    When I was in high school I ran cross country all four years. Originally it was to get in shape for basketball, but then I decided I didn’t want to play basketball (on the C squad because I couldn’t afford the summer camps), but I kept running. Or should I say jogging.

    See I’ve never been super athletic, just mediocre. But I kept at it and most of the time my coach didn’t care if I didn’t run as far as the other kids. I ran for the same amount of time I just didn’t get all the way to the top of the mountain before he was driving back down. The deal was, I got to turn around when he got to me (after all the other kids had reached his truck and he started back down).

    The first couple years there were only 3 or 4 girls on the team so we all ran Varsity even though I almost always came in last, yes, in every single race.
    My senior year we finally had a full team (5 runners plus 2 alternates) and an extra 3 runners. Which meant that since I was slow I got demoted to JV, even as a senior.

    Then our team went to State. And we had a fairly decent chance of placing.
    So he picked the top 7 members of the team to run. I didn’t get to run, even as an alternate. (for scoring purposes the top 5 places count and then if there’s a tie they use the 6th and then 7th runners) Since I wasn’t running I wasn’t even going to get to go to the State meet. One of the other parents took me in their car, with the little sister. And I got to sleep on the floor in my teammates room.

    Then at the end of the year awards ceremony he gave me the “Coach’s Award”. A new award created that year, just so he could give it to me for my “perseverance” all four years. It meant nothing. I was so hurt by the fact that he couldn’t let me run, even as an alternate, as a senior and all the years I’d been committed to the team. I found it the other day packed in a box of high school stuff… worthless.

    Actions speak louder than words in a lot of cases. Letting the kid who isn’t very good play anyway, especially when it won’t affect the team outcome. Or maybe even if it will.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is… little kids won’t always understand if they don’t get a trophy perhaps. But as an 18 year old I certainly did. And it colored the previous 4 years with the notion that the coach really didn’t care that much about me after all, he was just trying to mollify me.

    • Krista, I’ve coached football and basketball at the high school level for several years, and we have a Coaches Award. I’ve never met a coach yet that didn’t DEEPLY appreciate the kids like you. I can’t say for certain unless I happen to know the coach you are speaking of (was it at Newberg?) but I would be very surprised if it was an attempt to mollify you or that the coach didn’t care. I’m betting he really did.

  6. I’m not sure whether I agree or disagree with you about the distribution of physical trophies. Part of me wonders if the value of earning a trophy might be demeaned if distributed with no connection to specific goals met or victories earned. Another, bigger, part of me wonders if trophies really matter that much anyway: the pride of a job well-done, the sweet experience of victory, or hard work paying off seems to carry much more weight than an inexpensive plastic symbol.

    But all that is just details.

    We agree on the main idea: that effort is important and worth celebrating. Showing up and continuing to try? Even (especially?) in the face of adversity? That is courage.

    A ‘win’ reflects nothing more than an objective, measurable outcome. The journey along the way– all the ups and downs, effort, perseverance, humility, experiences– matters. Those are the moments that create character. (I’m reminded of a student in high school that cheated and paid his way through standard classes in high school to earn a 4.0, while another student earned a 3.8 after pouring blood, sweat and tears into all Honors level classes. Objectively, the first student ‘won’ the 4.0 gpa. That ‘win’ doesn’t reflect what really matters, though– hard work, perseverance, character.)

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our culture seems to be so wrapped up in symbols rather than the deeper reality they represent. We focus so strongly on praising success, rather than all the hard work along the way. The moments of success don’t seem to be when people need encouragement or celebration, though– the actual success seems to provide that on its own. It’s the moments of dismal failure, when outrageous effort put forth and best intentions are met with disaster, that encouragement is so desperately needed. I know how deeply I’ve been touched when people have seen through my messy failures and spoke encouragement into my life: it gave me the courage to pick myself up, breathe, and try again.

    I suspect we could change the world in powerful ways if we chose to do this together– praise the effort rather than successes. Turn our focus from the outcome to the process, away from the symbols and back toward the deeper reality they represent.

  7. Thank you Beth! What encouraging words. Very much felt. I fail everyday, but the next day I always show up! (Even when it is a little to early, or a little to whiney, or I am a little too grumpy!)

  8. Whatever special means to you, is important and legitimate enough. You are entitled as a mother, and a human being to create your own definition. I happen to agree with everything you say here, but even if I didn’t, it absolutely shouldn’t matter.

  9. Every kid deserves to be recognized and honored for there hard work, but i’m not sure a participation trophy is the right way. My kid has played organized sports since he was three. He’s just finished second grade and we’re already running out of room display his participation trophies. Our coach (who happens to be my husband) does give other rewards. For football, at the end of season parties, there are always two certificates for every kid, one serious (most improved, best linebacker, etc) and one funny (best sideline dancer, most likely to fall for no reason, etc) and an end of season highlight video. For baseball he gives out a game ball at each game (and makes sure every kid on the team ends up with at least one). I know my husband is a dedicated coach and not everyone does it, but I think those kind of awards go farther than the participation trophy that every kid in the league gets.

    • “I think those kind of awards go farther than the participation trophy that every kid in the league gets.”

      I agree. I think words of encouragement go even farther, particularly if they’re in writing.

      And I think we all need trophies. 🙂 Both/And.

      But, truly, your husband sounds like a remarkable coach – the kind who’s making it meaningful for each individual kid. We can all be grateful for coaches like him.

  10. Commenting because this week has been painful and the quote just popped in my head as I finished reading this…

    ” What does that make us?”

    ” Big damn heroes, sir!”

    ”Ain’t we just.”

  11. I adore your blogs, and will lovingly and respectfully disagree here. I am the aunt to a child with Aspergers, and totally agree that every figurative mountain he climbs should be rewarded with the equivalent to the Heisman trophy, but I think the love and support and cheerleading of his family and friends is what really counts.

    My three children are not athletes, but they get out there and do their best and we parents love everything they do. We coax them to continue when they think they’re not good enough. We love them through the disappointments and the triumphs. Their grandparents drive miles to see them make or miss a goal.

    But I remain steadfast in my belief that you get a trophy because you or your team won the tournament, or the conference or whatever the goal was. Yes, there can be “most improved” ribbons or “best effort” awards – sure! But I get a little nauseous every end of the season at the local Y when they hand out those trophies.

    My son has only kept one of his trophies: when he was picked as MVP for his middle school lax team. He – not I – decided that the other trophies were less-than-meaningful. He knew which one was the real award.

    • Thank you, thank you for taking time to voice such respectful disagreement.

      I love this: “We love them through the disappointments and the triumphs. Their grandparents drive miles to see them make or miss a goal.”

      That’s what family is.


  12. SO TRUE!!! Beautifully put… Everyone should be honored for their strengths, even if some days that strength is just getting through the day! 🙂

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