Last week I was sitting in a restaurant with my kids listening to two fathers at the next table talk about how sick they were of “this culture of participation ribbons for everyone.” Their kids had just finished a tournament and these gentlemen were lamenting the fact that even the weakest players on the team – “no offense but he’s not that good” – walked away with a medal.
Their entire conversation made my blood boil for a few reasons. One, they didn’t seem all that familiar with the other players on their kids’ team. They didn’t know names, referring to them as “the small one with the red hair” or “the one with the hot mom” which in my mind means they haven’t spent a lot of time around the team and therefore have no concept of who’s worked hard all season, who shows up every week and plays her heart out, who’s a great team player.
Second, who are any of us to criticize the rewards and acknowledgement given to other people’s children? In terms of creating future responsible adults, isn’t this practice just as dangerous – if not more so – than the sense of entitlement “trophies for everyone” allegedly creates?
Believe me, I get why “trophies for everyone” frustrates people. We want our kids to learn that they need to work hard to get the reward, that just showing up isn’t going to get them very far in life. Giving everyone a ribbon regardless of output or aptitude is, some believe, akin to saying “you’re all the same.”
But when it comes to kids playing house league soccer, for example, don’t we want to reward the effort? What’s wrong with giving him something to acknowledge that he put on the jersey, laced up the cleats and got his butt on the field?
A participation ribbon is testament to the fact you showed up. You got off the couch, put down the iPad, and DID something. Maybe it was something you’d never done before. Maybe it was something your parents were forcing you to do. But you DID IT.
I’m not suggesting we buy them cars or give them scholarships, but last time I checked a ribbon cost about three cents. This seems like a fair price for making a child feel good and proud about himself. And when you think about the stories that ribbon will tell and perhaps inspire in the next generation, three cents looks like an even better deal.
There’s a grown man living in my house who has every minor hockey ribbon and trophy he’s ever won. Not tucked away in a box but out. On display. Proudly. They’re a testament to all the tournaments, the travel, the friendships, the accomplishments, the love of sport and the pride. He looks at them and remembers the talks he had with his Dad on the way to the rink, the way his mom always made him feel better after a bad game. I look at them and roll my eyes, but that’s beside the point.
I was a competitive swimmer growing up. My parents kept all my ribbons and medals and eventually gave them to me a few years ago. And by gave I mean unceremoniously dumped them on my front door in a ripped cardboard box. I promptly threw most of it away because I hate clutter and I’m not very sentimental when it comes to my own past. But when I see my girls fawning over my husband’s mementos and asking for stories about this one and that one, I wish I’d kept more of it. And to save my kids from making the same mistake I’ve decided I’m keeping everything they ever win until I die and then I’m going to be buried with the originals and have my executor email them photos. Or something like that, I’m still working out the details.
I was never the kid that won all the medals and ribbons, and I’m not sure my daughters will be either. So without a token for participation, all we’d be left with is a pat on the back, which is fine for an adult, but kids like stuff. Kids like things that are colourful and shiny, things they can hold and touch and put under their pillow or stuff in their backpack then ultimately lose and cry about for three days. They don’t care if it has PARTICIPANT emblazoned on the front. It’s all the same to them.
And here’s the thing. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t bitch about inactivity and screen time and in the same breath condemn a system that rewards kids when they put down the iPad and try something new. I’m not just talking about sports. Chess, math, sewing, pig farming, whatever our kids are into, let’s be loud and proud about the effort. Let’s teach them to cheer each other on, to be proud of their accomplishments whether they were the best or not.
You can always chuck it out later, then cry for three days.
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