To what extent should standards be lowered in order to protect our mental health? Should we consider ourselves winners if we lost? Is trying your best all that really matters? Should you still receive a consolation prize even if nothing of value results from all your hard work?
Well, it depends. Older generations perceive younger generations as overly coddled, too sheltered from the brutal realities of the real world. In his editorial “Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy?” Alfie Kohn believes that children are “overcelebrated” for their “inadequacy.” Participation trophies, free A’s, and undeserved praise are just a few of the examples that he gives in order to show how “coddled” our younger generations are. I both agree and disagree. For one, it is a fundamental belief of mine that we should never direct praise or rewards where they are unwarranted. I believe that down the line, that does more harm than good. Yes, it’s important to teach children that they matter, but should we completely lower the bar in order to protect them?
One thing people tend to take issue with is the distribution of participation trophies at children’s sporting competitions. Several famous figures have spoken out against participation trophies, such as All-Star baseball player Bryce Harper, Louisville women’s basketball head coach Jeff Walz, and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Their concerns are reasonable. In a research study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Dale Schunk found that children improved their arithmetic skills most rapidly when rewarded for high-level performance. He also found that there was no difference in the improvement rate for children who received participation rewards and for children who did not receive any awards at all. So what is the best way to encourage children to improve? According to the study, reward them only when they’re doing well. If they’re able to get something out of doing well, they will continue pushing to improve in order to reap the benefits of their rewards. If we give children consolation prizes for mediocre academic performance, however, they are unlikely to change their study and learning habits. Why should they attempt to work harder if they’re already receiving rewards for their mediocre work? In my opinion, however, sports are a whole different playing field (pun intended). When children lose a sporting event, they know they lost. Sports are outright competitive while academics are much more focused on individual children improving on their own in a classroom setting. (At least that’s what academics should be focused on. It is not focused on that at the moment, but we can talk about that another time). Yes, academics can get competitive, but they are less obviously competitive, especially when children are still young. From my point of view, participation trophies in sports are less about actually rewarding children and more about giving them a tangible item to remember the event by. Because from what I see, children most definitely know that they lost. They’re smarter than we give them credit for. According to Kobe Bryant, their trophies can actually serve to motivate them to become better as well. Regardless of whether they get trophies or not, children clearly know the difference between fourth place and first place. Having fourth place stare you in the face every day can definitely motivate you to become better. So what do I think of participation trophies for competitive events? I honestly don’t think it matters. If they’re distributed, that’s great. If not, then that’s fine too. What I take real issue with is rewards for inadequacy in activities in which there is no clear competition. That can be detrimental to a child’s success in the future. Of course, high self-esteem is a positive thing. But as Kohn puts it best, “unconditional self-esteem” is the best kind of self-esteem to have; unconditional self-esteem is knowing one’s worth despite failures and always finding the motivation to improve and move forward despite failure. Participation rewards encourage high self-esteem (some may argue to the point of near narcissism) while completely ignoring unconditional self-esteem.
So yes, I mostly agree with Kohn that we should not reward children for underperforming regardless of effort. We should take conscious steps to protect their mental health and let them know of their own value, but handing out A’s for effort is not the way to do that. When a child is underperforming, educators, parents, coaches, etc. should provide their time and support in order to help the child improve while being honest about the child’s performance to the child. This reinforces the notion that the child is valuable and worth other people’s time regardless of whether they performed well or not. It also evidently encourages children to perform better with a vast support system to help them improve while being realistic about the quality of their performance. What I strongly disagree with Kohn about is that today’s children are coddled. From what I see, no generation has it harder academically and socially than today’s children. With social media on the rise, today’s children are going to have to grow up in a digital world where their mental health may be affected by what they see online. In addition, academics and outside activities are by no means easy for this generation. I discuss this more in my article "School Starts Way Before Kindergarten.” The mental health of young people is currently declining because of the pressure to achieve. But you know what probably won’t do any good for their mental health or overall performance? Participation rewards. Let’s focus on ensuring that our children have the support systems they need in order to perform their best instead of trophies and gold stars.