Why returning ribbons is cheap, disrespectful and destructive

I’ve been troubled by the story of NFL player James Harrison returning his kids’ participation trophies since it surfaced in August. CNN called it his “war on the trophies kids get for simply showing up and playing a sport.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker says he’s very proud and supportive of his children, but believes everything in life should be earned and they shouldn’t feel entitled.

Harrison wrote that he wants his kid to earn a “real trophy.”

This is the antithesis of encouraging kids – or any people – to put themselves out there and to try something new. It’s the opposite of focussing on achieving personal goals. It’s the Donald Trump perspective of winners and losers.

It’s cheap, disrespectful and destructive. Here’s why:

  1. participation trophiesIt’s cheap – or “mean” in the truest sense of the word. Encouragement costs nothing. Participation ribbons cost as little as 20 cents. A trophy costs a little more. This year, my son won “most improved” on his flag football team. The coach gave him the game ball from the last game. No cost to the team but priceless for my son. He has no illusions that he is the MVP. He does not mistake it for a Super Bowl Ring. It’s just a symbol to him that he tried his best and it was recognized in a small way.
  2. It’s disrespectful. Kids know exactly who came in first through tenth at the track meet. Those kids get a different ribbon. To this day my daughter tells me about the kid who squeaked past her friend to snag the coveted #10 ribbon while her friend received “participant” years ago. You can bet her friend will step on the gas next time. Kids have a more elaborate scoring system than who goes home with which trophy – they know who scored the most goals, who was played and who spent more time on the bench. So what’s wrong with recognizing they were part of a team? Maybe they had a lot of assists but not a lot of goals. That does not make them a “loser.” It does not make the trophy less “real.” Runners focus on a personal best. That’s what we should be encouraging our kids to do. Give them a little credit. They have an acute sense of justice and they know where they really rank. And if not… so what? Life will show them otherwise quickly enough without having their dad return their trophy. Add to that, the field is not always level. I ran in one community 10K a few years ago. When they announced the winners, one was receiving a provincial triathlete award, another had represented Israel in international competitions. So I’m not a world-class runner… yeah, I knew that already.
  3. It’s destructive. Returning a kids’ trophy because they didn’t “deserve it” isn’t really the parent’s call, is it? Your child knows if they did their best. The coach has a better vantage point. You don’t get to erode their self worth.

Would you let your child return your paycheque and say “Sorry Dad, Jones did a better job this week. His sales are much higher.” Who are you to judge what they have earned?

And, what’s the advantage of separating “winners” and “losers”? Lots of kids are trying much harder than the naturally talented kids. That does not make them worth-less. More importantly, for the kids who struggle with athletics, a participation ribbon pinned on their board is a tangible reminder that they did it. They can see themselves as a person who runs, skates, swims, … whatever. In psychology parlance, it changes their cognitive post.

Adults love a little participation swag too. Don't they "earn" it by signing up, training, raising funds, finishing? I think so.
Adults love a little participation swag too. Don’t they “earn” it by signing up, training, raising funds, finishing? I think so.

As a person who quit gym class the minute I could, it took me years to decide to even try a 5K or masters swimming. I had told myself long ago: “I’m not good at that. I don’t do that stuff.” I did not see myself as an active person. I withdrew from opportunities to be more active because of the way I saw myself – which is self perpetuating. You don’t try, you don’t get better. Now when I  participate in a tri-a-try or a 5K I’m going for a personal goal or feeling good about supporting a cause. Still,  the participation swag is a nice touch. Talk to my friends who have run in the Oakville 10K because the medal is a Mercedes symbol – or completed the Disney marathon. They do not feel “entitled” but they did earn it.

If you enjoyed this post. You may also like Why encourage those in the middle of the pack and those who are dead last?



Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

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