Friday, August 21, 2015
Ranting On...Participation Trophies
This week I'm going to to wade into one of the least frequented topics on TMROJ: sports. Yes, that subject that usually only comes up once every two years during the Olympics is rearing its head after the controversy involving James Harrison, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker who made headlines when he lambasted his children's participation trophies on Instagram, saying that he was making them return them until they won a trophy that they had earned. This post, like any involving parenting, drew LOTS of press and reactions; parenting is one of the few things the majority of the populace has in common, and it's one of those things that anyone who partakes views themselves as an expert upon, so it didn't take long for people to both praise and disrepute Harrison's claims.
I don't know if reading this blog for many years will make my opinion on this subject obvious from the get-go, but I agree with him 100%. I've never really gotten the entire "participation trophy" thing anyway. I remember in gym class when they said "let's not keep score," I kept score anyway, even if I was losing. I was one of those kids who pointed it out in the locker room, though let's be honest pretty much every kid did. I was also not a particularly strong athlete, so a participation trophy sort of reeked of "pathetic" to me, and it felt completely unearned. The few sports I was any good at (swimming, golf), I pushed harder because I knew there was a prize in getting first, there was a reason to be the best. This was even more of a case for me academically. I hated the idea that everyone would get the same grade if you did the assignment, regardless of the work quality; pass/fail was anathema to me. I didn't want a grade that I didn't earn, and would study hard and work harder, quite frankly, if the class was more challenging and if not everyone was going to win. This was incentive-if you take away that incentive by giving everyone a trophy, there's no reason to try.
This was also reflected in the way that I was raised. My parents are wonderful people, and the most important thing to them was "you tried hard," but success mattered to them greatly as well. Getting on the B-Honor roll was fine and all that, particularly if you were taken down by a class you tried in but weren't successful, but there was a clear distinction in how we were rewarded for hitting the A or A- honor roll (and by we, I mean my brother as I didn't hit the A-honor roll until college...damn you math!) and the lesser B-honor roll. This didn't make me feel bad or worse about myself, but made me drive harder. I knew what losing felt like, and I knew that it didn't feel good so I worked my ass off to get things that I wanted.
This also drove me to dream harder than some of my peers. I started to realize that not only grades, but also jobs and living in a big city were dependent on working stronger, faster, and longer. I wanted to go to school in a major multi-million person metropolitan area (something almost no one from my small town school did), which was going to require work, convincing of my parents, and thanks to a lack of opportunities, excelling in basically every area that I could find that might help on an academic transcript. As a result I got my dream of going to a school in a major city, and it shaped me in significant ways as I entered adulthood and the workforce.
And this is perhaps the most damning and important reason why "reward everything" is so critical-in the real world, you don't get participation trophies or everything catered toward you, and important, actual trophies (like salaries, bonuses, and promotions) are actually on the line. I remember training someone for their job once and he said, after I heard from one of his trainers that he wasn't paying attention in class, that he "works better in a real-life environment so he didn't see the point in paying attention in class," to which I responded, in so many words, "we're paying you to learn in the classroom-so figure out a way to learn there or else get another job." This sort of hyper-catering to children and students and athletes is not good. Rewarding everyone gives them less incentive to do better, and eventually that catches up with you. Eventually there's that job you have to have but you don't know what hard work looks like so you miss it or that grad school application that you can't get in because you took too easy of courses or that college basketball team you wanted to become a part of but you were rewarded so frequently that you never actually got any better. I'm not saying winning is everything, but it is a big thing and to ignore that is, in my opinion, bad parenting. So bravo to James Harrison for becoming the poster child of trying hard and working for your dreams. Here's to hoping this resonates and makes us all better people.