Thanks for Participating!

There has been quite a bit of talk in the Twitterverse lately about the relatively recent practice of giving trophies (or medals or awards of some kind) to kids simply for participating in a sport or activity. Those criticizing the practice believe that this practice is creating a sense of entitlement in our children and youth. Kids no longer have to work hard and “earn” their awards. While I can certainly understand that argument and while I agree that we are raising children (at least in white America) with a HUGE sense of entitlement, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps there is more to this than what we see merely on the surface. Perhaps we are missing something bigger.

My son does not participate in any traditional sports, but over the past year, at the age of 6, he became involved in Cub Scouts. I love what the Cub Scouts program stands for. They teach important skills and life lessons while also helping boys to connect with others and to learn about their communities. One of the fun activities the Cub Scouts do each year is the Pinewood Derby. Since I had never been in scouts and this was my son’s first year, I knew nothing about making a car for the derby. But…I did my best and put together something that I was pretty proud of.

When we got to the race, I found out that my car was under weight and that I should have added some weights to it so that it would go faster. Luckily, they had some weights there that I could add. So, I glued some on until it was right at the weight limit and we put it on the line in preparation for the races to begin. When my son’s name got called and he put his car on the track, we were both excited to see how well it would do. In its first race, it came in dead last. My son was devastated, but I told him that there would be more races and that he was bound to do better on the others. And then…he didn’t. He came in last on EVERY race. He was crushed. He bawled from about the third time he raced his car until the very end of that division of races…probably 7 or more races. I felt terrible for him, but I was also frustrated because he was not handling losing very well at all. Then, when they went to present the awards for that division, they gave out the trophies for first place and for best design and then they gave all the kids a participation medal. My son walked out there with tears still in his eyes and they put the medal around his neck. And they had an extra medal which they gave my son as well as a good sportsmanship medal, for persevering through difficulty.

I will admit that at first I felt kind of angry that they gave my son, not only one medal, but two medals even though his car did horribly and his attitude stunk. I didn’t feel like they should reward that kind of behavior. But as I thought about it more, something in my heart changed. Before I get into that though, I want to talk a bit about this entitlement mentality that we seem to be seeing in the younger generation. Where does it come from? Are things like participation trophies really the cause?

The Millennials have been called the Entitlement Generation, but that criticism seems to be continuing with the generation that has followed. I see a few possible “reasons” for this. First, it is becoming more and more common in American society for kids to come from a home with a single parent or to have divorced parents. This has led to more parents fighting to be the “best” parent, using material gifts to “buy” love. Then the kids come to expect that sort of thing. Second, parents are far more disengaged from their kids that perhaps ever before. With the invention of smart phones and tablets and social networking, parents spend a lot more time with their faces in an electronic device than they do giving their attention to their children. I will confess that I often fall prey to this myself. I have to make a conscious effort to pull myself from the screen periodically and play with my kids.

Because of this, children feel like they have to fight for attention. And one of the ways they do that is by demanding things. And many parents feel so guilty about ignoring their kids that they just give in to the demands. (Also, something I’ve been guilty of from time to time.) And third, I think we have somehow extended every stage of childhood development. Entitlement is a stage that children usually go through around 2 to 4 years of age and again when they are teenagers. Much current research shows that the stage of adolescence has been expanded well into the 20s. At the same time, it seems like the adolescent stage is also beginning earlier. I think it would be possible then that some of the other stages are crossing their normal bounds now as well. Perhaps that 2 to 4 stage of entitlement has stretched out to more like 2 to 6 and the one that normally begins in the teens has expanded downward, such that there is almost no gap in the middle anymore. Thus the entitlement stage looks more like an entitlement generation.

None of this is to say that we do not have a problem on our hands that needs to be addressed. However, it does bring into question whether participation trophies have made any sort of contribution at all to this issue. My feeling is that perhaps it is actually an attempt to combat the problem. “How so?” you ask. Allow me to explain. The problem is that we have a whole bunch of kids who are seeking attention because they are, for whatever reason, not getting enough at home. So, they either act out or they cheat or they do whatever they can to be the best. They are concerned only with themselves and what they can get. However, if everyone gets the same thing, if they all receive a medal no matter what, it actually evens the playing field a little. Suddenly, it is okay to root for others because it doesn’t take anything away from you.

Perhaps this is too simplistic. Perhaps I am making too many generalizations that would not hold water in particular situations. Well, let me come back then to my own son and his experience at the Pinewood Derby. He did not win and it was painful for him. But when he discovered that he got a medal even though his car came in last every time, when he saw that just working hard was enough to get noticed and he didn’t need to be “the best,” it gave him permission to enjoy himself and root for other kids and their cars. It gave him permission to have fun and not focus solely on himself. Isn’t that what we want to see happen with the “entitlement generation?” We definitely have a problem with entitlement in our country, but I do not believe that participation trophies are the problem.

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4 thoughts on “Thanks for Participating!

  1. Great post, Jeff! Reminds me of how I received an award entitled “Most Determined” on my 6th grade basketball team. This was because I always played my hardest no matter what and was a very scrappy player, often on the ground more than on my feet as I went after every ball I could. To this day there’s a part of me that wishes I could have received what in my eyes would have been a more prestigious award. At the same time though a sense of joy and humility well up within me too that I was recognized in such a way as well.

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  2. I love that other positive attributes are being lauded. Winning is great. It’s also not everything. I don’t mind the participation medals. It’s a good way to recognize what’s important so that kids appreciate it, too, as you pointed out. I don’t necessarily want to see them simply everywhere, though.

    To be honest, I usually tune out the complaining about entitlement. It just sounds like a bunch of whining to me, and it usually comes from people who are themselves contributing to the mess, or else who have failed to understand the difference between how it was “back in my day” and how it is now.

    I do think that there is a problem, but the crux of it is children fed mere things–just stuff, the more the better to fill the emptiness–rather than being encouraged to engage. We feel guilty as parents often for no good reason. Why isn’t it enough (it used to be) for our kids to be alive, fed, clothed, and put in bed at the end of the day? Our kids embody our own fear that WE aren’t enough. We don’t ourselves value just regular old life.

    I think the real problem is refusing to live in reality, to invest in what matters, to risk not being perfect and together because we’re too busy living rather than performing.

    So I’m glad your little guy got a trophy that recognized what he did as both hard and valuable.

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