The lessons my kids have learned from participation trophies

After this year’s dance recital, at what felt like 4 in the morning, all three of my girls picked up their recital trophies. Sonya has been dancing for years at this point – good God, has it been 5 years? Six years? – and she’s pretty okay at it. She can do a back handspring and she points her toes, and when she shakes her hips, it seems like a totally natural move.

Viv’s been dancing for two years now, and she’s kind of moving into the worst stage of dancing, which is “they are no longer adorable toddlers” but also “they really aren’t very coordinated yet.” She works hard, and makes progress, but it’s not like the kids in her age group would be winning any trophies that weren’t preceded by the word “participation.”

Amelia refused to go on stage, so she got a participation trophy without even participating.

You hear it all the time – kids these days, they’re so coddled. They get trophies just for showing up, nobody teaches them what it’s like to lose. Back in my day, the argument goes, you had to earn a trophy.

I’m here to disagree with that entire sentiment. First of all, any time somebody says “kids these days,” or perhaps more commonly “those stupid millennials,” my advice is just to put your fingers in your ear like a spoiled kid these days and walk away, saying “la la la la” in your most annoying tone while wagging your tongue and maybe shaking your hips. Same goes for “back in my day.”

More importantly, though, the argument itself is a bad one. In a soccer tournament with 200 kids, if one team gets the trophies, that’s 11 kids. Right? Eleven kids get a prize. The top 5%. The rest are looooooosers.

Except the rest showed up, every practice, and gave it their all. They did what their coaches told them, they ran laps in the 90 degree heat, they got up early to play soccer in the rain. They skipped their friend’s birthday party and ran back home to put cleats on when their neighbors got to stay behind and play video games.

And the truth is, in life, very few of us are in the top 5% of our fields. Do I expect a trophy for showing up to work each day? Nope, but I expect a paycheck, and I expect that when I consistently deliver results – even if they aren’t results that would be seen from the top 5% of my field – my work gets recognized.

I’m not saying that every human being deserves a medal just for being alive (except maybe they do. Aren’t we all worthwhile?). I’m saying that the things that my kids learn at soccer, and at gymnastics, and at dance, have almost nothing to do with whether they are the number 1 kid on the field or the bars or the stage. They have to do with teamwork, and hard work, and pushing yourself through even when you aren’t that great at something until you get better at that thing, realizing that maybe you’re a shy kid who can’t really shake her hips that well but goshdarnit you’re going to practice it anyway and maybe go out on stage if it isn’t too scary (and if it is, you’ll try again next year).

And it’s not like the kids don’t know. It’s not like they don’t know that Sara’s back handspring is 9.75 perfect and Jackson has scored all the team’s goals this season. It’s not like they get a participation trophy and think, “wow, I’ve reached the pinnacle of life, time to stop trying.”

Sonya has consistently been one of the worst kids at her level on her gymnastics team, which is astounding to me, because this kid can do a cartwheel without any hands. For two years now, we have sat through medal ceremony after medal ceremony, and the only medals she has ever gotten have been the ones for all-around participation. She’s 12th out of 12, and she gets a medal. Because she’s not the best or second best or third best or eleventh best but she shows up and she works hard and she can do a cartwheel without any hands.

At the last meet of the season last year, something clicked. Her scores were higher than they had ever been, and when the medal ceremony started, she got third place for beam. Third place! A medal that wasn’t simply for participation! She then got fourth on bars (fourth!), second on floor (second!), and third on vault (third!). At the all-around ceremony, she was standing on the special wooden blocks, third place overall.

Did those participation medals from earlier in the year matter to her? Yes. Did they hold a candle to her third place all-around medal, the five medals clanking around her neck as she stepped down from the podium? I mean, it’s ridiculous to even compare them. The joy and pride she felt that night were unlike anything I’ve ever seen from her, before or since. Nothing that I have helped her with could ever have made her feel that way.

And it felt that way because she knows the difference, and she knows the work she put in to get those “no really you’re actually the best” medals. And she worked that hard in part because for her whole life, people have been willing to say “it’s pretty great that you’re working so hard, even if you aren’t the best (or second, or third, or eleventh) kid on the bars. Here’s something to commemorate your work.”

So when my kids get trophies for showing up to the dance recital, even when they run off the stage crying for mama because they are too scared to be up there when the lights come up, I don’t sneer and think “you’re actually a loser.” I think, “I’m so stinking proud of you for putting in the time and the work, and you’re 9 years old and can do a cartwheel with no hands/you’re 5 and scored four goals in one soccer game/you’re 2 and you’re surprisingly good at forward rolls.”

I don’t care if my kids grow up to be state champions or win full-ride scholarships to Division 1 colleges (confession: I don’t even know what it is I just typed, but it’s a thing people say, so). I hope they continue to play sports because sports are fun, and sports are hard, and sports teach us to try at things that don’t necessarily come naturally, to pass to our teammate even if we get more glory by taking the shot, to follow directions and push through soreness and laugh with our friends and cheer, so hard, when Abby walks ten steps on her hands. They teach us to trust our bodies and treat our bodies well, to put one foot in front of the other even when we are in dead last place in a half marathon (oh hi; that was me), to feel the breeze and run our hardest and try again and show up when it would be so much easier to just watch Netflix and eat potato chips.

My kids get participation trophies because participating is winning. Trying is winning. Working hard is winning.

Do they deserve a trophy just for taking part? Yes, they do. We all do. And as adults, we get rewarded, with raises and promotions, even if we are merely keeping our heads down, working hard, and making progress. So should they.

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