A friend on Facebook posted a link to this blog post– a rant against the idea of giving trophies, or, well, anything really, to “losers”.
The post describes results from a poll of Americans that were asked the question:
Do you think all kids who play sports should receive a trophy for their participation, or should only the winning players be awarded trophies?
and it describes some differences in the answers by groups- with the author making very acerbic points about how kids are harmed when we given them rewards even when they’re not the winners. And this discussion gets sucked in to the liberal versus conservative/capitalist versus socialist schism- that liberals aim to reward everyone despite what they accomplish or do and that conservatives would only reward those that actually achieve, the ‘winners’ (read the report on the poll this is based on). Full disclosure- I’m pretty much a liberal, though I don’t think that word means what you think it means. The post frames this as a “discussion about privilege”- but I’m not really sure that’s where it’s coming from at all. The feeling of entitlement (that is to say, privilege) is indeed a problem in our society. The thrust of this post though I don’t agree with at all- that giving out trophies to kids is a significant problem, or even a symptom of the greater problem. Here’s my answering rant.
So at the most basic, rewarding kids who do not perform well with something (a trophy or a trip to the pizza place) is probably not a good idea. However, the post (and the other chatter that I’ve heard in a similar vein) is generally about this: giving trophies to losers. That is, kids that don’t win. At sports.
I was a coach for a YMCA summer soccer team. The kids were 3 and 4- and one was my son. Let me tell you from first hand experience- NO ONE WINS AT 3-4 YEAR OLD SOCCER GAMES. No one. It looks at bit like a flock of starlings that has suddenly become obsessed with a dragonfly. Often times it does not obey the boundaries of the field or heed the blow of the whistle- multiple times, louder and louder. We had clover gazing, random sit downs, running the ball the wrong direction, and seeming blindness at critical moments on our team during the games. But it was a lot of fun and the kids were learning something about how to work as a team and how to play a game. Toward the end of the season we were planning our end-of-the-season pizza party (the same type that is decried in the aforementioned post) and sent out an email to the parents about buying trophies for the kids. Most parents were on board but one objected, “I don’t want my kid rewarded for nothing” (the parent caved to pressure and did buy a trophy for their kid after all though). Were the trophies necessary? Probably not. Were they welcomed by the parents? Well, really, who wants an(other) ugly wood and plastic monstrosity sitting around their kid’s room? Did the kids love them? Yes. Yes they did. Were we rewarding losers? I have absolutely no idea who ‘won’ in a traditional sense. But all the kids did well in different ways.
Yes, 3-4 yo ‘sports’ are VERY different than sports for older kids, but that’s not my point. The larger picture here is that there’s an idea that winning and losing is ‘real life’ (conservative) and rewarding losers is being all soft and smooshy and in denial about the harsh reality of the world (liberal). This is a myth- or at the very least a misunderstanding about what life is. The concept of winning and losing pretty much just pertains to games- and games, though they may teach important concepts, do not reflect the reality of life. A football game can be won. A team emerges victorious and another not so much. However, not many other things in life an be described that way. Who wins in school? Are there a limited number of ‘winners’ – valedictorians, for example? And everyone else in the graduating class- those who are not the winner, they’re losers? Well, not really. In your job do you have winners and losers? Maybe you have people who do better in their job and people who do worse- but there’s a continuum between these two ends- no one group of winners and one group of losers. And everyone gets paid. I guess in war (what sports and some other games are modeled upon) there are winners and losers- one side is triumphant, the other defeated. But I think we can all see that it’s rarely as clear as all that. Winners have battle scars and losers regroup.
So why not give kids trophies or ribbons or pizza parties when they’ve accomplished something. Hey- my team of 3 and 4 year old soccer players made it through the season. That is SOMETHING. And it was worth rewarding. And the encouragement they got from their pizza and their trophy might get them coming back to try soccer again- or not. But it won’t make them think – “oh gosh, all I did was sit on my rear and I got something for it”.
So the heart of my problem with this whole issue is that I feel that people who think trophies shouldn’t be given to “losers” (as represented by the post) are missing the point. Big time. Life is not about who you beat in small contests that are, really, inconsequential to the rest of the world. That’s not how life works. The real contests in life are those that you win against yourself, and if you set your self worth by how you beat others in contests then you are losing in life. There will always be someone better than you- someone who you didn’t beat- someone who makes you a “loser”. Rewarding kids for recognizing that the larger struggle in life is not against other people, but in how you perform yourself, is an extremely important thing to teach them. (and if you think this is all smooshy talk, think about this: it’s pretty tough to beat someone else in any kind of contest if you don’t have yourself under control first)
So don’t give kids trophies if they didn’t do anything or if they had a bad attitude. But do reward them for winning over themselves: for doing, for accomplishing, for improving, for striving, for learning- you know, all those things that losers do.
P.S. I’ve also got a question about the poll itself. I’m no pollster (proudly) and not even a very accomplished statistician. But the poll was of 1000 Americans giving a reported margin of error of +/- 3.7%. I’m highly suspicious of this being a representative sample of the >300 million Americans, but this seems like pretty standard polling practice. My problem with the poll comes from the fact that most of the conclusions drawn are about subpopulations- so democrats are divided between positive and negative answers at 48% and republicans are mostly opposed to the idea of giving all kids trophies at 66%. I’m pretty sure that means that the margin of error is no longer +/- 3.7%. From the poll results it looks like there are about 40% of the respondents identified with either group (so 40% democrats, 40% republicans). Doing a little math in my head that means that there are, ummm, about 400 respondents represented in each group. That would make the margin of error about +/- 7%, which makes the difference between 66% and 48% pretty much non-significant (since 66%-7%=59% and 48%+7%=55%, different, but not all that different). Now I’m probably committing some sin of
hucksterism pollsterism, but I note that all the other divisions they talk about in the report divide up into smaller groups (and thus larger margins of error). Please point out where I’m going wrong here.