So as a side effect of the 2016 election, I’ve become increasingly involved in politics, and to keep my mind open, I’ve been trying to read from a varied number of sources. From liberal talk-shows, to conservative blogs, to moderate newspapers, to random angry YouTube comments. (Let’s not compare source validity, here.) And no matter what end of the political spectrum I’m reading, there always seem to be one issue that everyone seems to agree on: that participation trophies are the worst things ever.
Seriously, according to the internet, the worst things in the world are:
- Participation Trophies
- Christmas Music
- Pop-up Ads
- Climate Change
- People Who are Bad at Parking.
In my humble opinion, number three is the one thing on this list that doesn’t quite belong.
“But Matt!” you say. “By giving all the kids trophies just for showing up, you’re teaching them that they don’t have to actually try in life. They’ll think life is just sunshine, roses and rainbows, and they won’t be prepared for the competitiveness of the real world.”
And I understand that reasoning. I believed it for the majority of my (not that long) life, mostly because that view had been drilled into me by so many adults, so many random people on the internet, so many teachers and relatives and fellow students. You know how many times I’ve been told that young people think they deserve to have everything handed to them? That this whole “Everyone gets a trophy” culture is turning kids into narcissistic, entitled wimps with unrealistic expectations and no real work ethic? Admittedly, not that often.
Still, it’s total bullshit. And it makes me wonder if the people arguing this have actually talked to children before, or remember what it’s like to be a kid. Because all the articles I’ve read on this issue seem to neglect one important factor: kids aren’t stupid.
Okay, kids can be pretty stupid sometimes. When I was five I believed that color didn’t exist until the 1950s, because everything filmed before then was in black and white.
But when it comes to certain things, like competition, they are not. You could tell a group of children that they’re all equal, that they’re all special snowflakes in their own way, but this isn’t a lesson that’s going to stick. Because they inherently know that it’s not true.
I got several participation trophies growing up. Quite a few of them, actually, not that it fooled anyone. I played baseball, soccer, and basketball up until I was around seven or eight. The coaches never really kept score, and there was no championship game or anything to see who the best team was.
But trust me, the kids knew. We knew which kid was always hitting those line drives and which kid couldn’t catch a fly ball if it landed in his glove. We knew which team was the the more obnoxious, douchier version of the Yankees and which team was the even sadder version of the Cubs.* And at the end of the season when we got a participation trophy, we didn’t think we were cool; we were thinking about how the obnoxious Yankee team got the real trophies, and how they were probably going out to get ice cream.
The last participation trophy I ever received was during my last year of Little League, and trust me, I was not proud of it. By that point, every kid my age knew exactly what that meant. My mom bragged about it to my brother as if it was an actual accomplishment, and the results were disastrous. My brother laughed at me the moment he found out, and then he told everyone else about it, who reacted the same way. Every day for weeks afterward, somebody from school would bring that trophy up, in that mocking tone that kids are so good at. “Hey Matt,” they’d say, “Congratulations on the participation trophy!” Then they’d laugh and high-five each other for the sick burn. It didn’t take long for me to get the ironic nickname of Athlete. As in, “Hey, Athlete. Heard you suck at baseball.”
In the end, I threw the trophy in the trash. I quit baseball after that, by the way, and I entered middle school with a very dark, cynical view towards life.
My point is that participation trophies aren’t the phony beacons of false hope we’re giving to children to set them up for future failure. Instead, whether intentionally or not, they’ve become our way of politely telling kids how terrible they are. And they know it.
Edit: I know I’m in the minority on this opinion, so if anyone would like to go into a hardcore debate over this (or even just a softcore debate), feel free to do so in the comments below. It’s more than possible, after all, that my experience with participation trophies is not representative of most people’s experience.
*I wrote this post months before the Cubs won the world series. Don’t judge me.