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Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. Headshot

The Trophy Debate: A Dissent

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In a New York Times Op-Ed column published last week, journalist Ashley Merryman offered this stark opinion about the trophies now routinely awarded in children's activities:

"Whether your kid loves Little League or gymnastics, ask the program organizers this: 'Which kids get awards?' If the answer is, 'Everybody gets a trophy,' find another program."

I have followed the trophy debate, and I have great respect for Ms. Merryman's previous, informative writing about parenting. I remain unconvinced, however, that participation trophies are in any way harmful to children.

To support her recommendation, Merryman cites psychologist Carol Dweck's important research on praise. Dweck has demonstrated, in a series of compelling studies, conducted in both laboratory and real-life settings, that praise for children's innate ability -- rather than for their effort -- is harmful to both their motivation and their performance.

But awarding trophies for participation is not praise for innate ability. It is a recognition of effort, the kind of praise that Dweck recommends.

Kids are kids, and we should encourage all their efforts. There will be plenty of opportunities for them to learn that competition is part of life and that success is earned through responsibility and hard work.

Merryman also endorses the now common idea that giving trophies for participation ("just showing up") leads to attitudes of entitlement. But this theory, often repeated as fact, has very little scientific support. In my experience, attitudes of entitlement have other, deeper causes.

When the trophy becomes more important than the activity itself, when children are uninterested in improving their skills, or when a child believes that just showing up is good enough, these attitudes also have deeper causes.

For a better understanding of how to teach children about winning and losing, I recommend Jim Thompson's Positive Coaching Alliance. Thompson offers a balanced approach. He shows how we can create a positive, encouraging environment in youth sports and teach children that winning matters -- but character and teamwork matter more.