Why Participation Trophies Give Kids The Wrong Message About Life

by Adam Silvers

From an early age, I, like many American kids, participated in Little League baseball.

In the beginning, the game was simply about having fun and hanging out with friends, but increasingly, there was a greater emphasis placed on performance and results.

Coaches acted less like fathers and more like, well, coaches. Between summer camp and Little League, I loved playing baseball, and I was good at it.

But as a 13-year-old standing at shortstop, I was still just a kid. And although I couldn't have even imagined what it felt like to play baseball for a living, I knew I didn't enjoy the constant pressure being placed on me then.

The end of each Little League season was always capped with a closing ceremony of sorts, when the champions of each division received their trophies.

Naturally, only the winners took home hardware. It made sense to me.

Sure, we all tried our hardest, but there can only be one champion. Game over, try again next year.

Times have changed.

Now, it appears, almost everyone gets a trophy no matter what. We can't have kids thinking they weren't good enough, even though that's probably what happened.

So what? Who cares if everyone gets a trophy or not? We all know who actually won, right?

Then, James Harrison got me thinking about why it does such a disservice to hand out "participation trophies."

A few days ago, the 37-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker set the Internet ablaze with a single Instagram post, in which he explained why he wouldn't allow his sons to keep their participation trophies.

Harrison wrote,

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.

He continued,

...cause sometimes your best isn't enough, and that should drive you to want to do better...not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

Bravo, James.

Whether you agree with him or not, Harrison's explanation for making his boys return their participation trophies is eloquent, refreshing and extremely thought-provoking.

Veteran NBC Washington news anchor Jim Vance took an even stronger position than Harrison.

NBC Washington anchor Jim Vance says giving trophies to kids for participating is child abuse. — Post Sports (@PostSports) August 18, 2015

I don't think participation trophies are the same thing as child abuse, but Vance most certainly makes his position known.

This conversation, it turns out, is nothing new.

In 2007, the late, great comedian George Carlin ranted about what a detriment it is to society that we can't tell our kids they lost something anymore.

In today's America, no child ever loses. There are no losers anymore. Everyone's a winner, no matter what the game or sport or competition. Everybody wins. Everybody wins; everybody gets a trophy; no one is a loser.

He continued,

You know what they tell a kid who lost these days, 'you were the last winner.'

I feel like George Carlin, James Harrison and Jim Vance would've been good friends if they got the chance to hang out just once.

Carlin also explained that the big problem with giving every kid a trophy and telling him that he didn't lose is that down the line, that same kid will have no idea how to handle adversity in life, both professionally and personally.

In the real world, you have to do more than just show up. Much like sports, you have to perform better than everyone else.

I love James Harrison's take in competition trophies. Life is a competition. Learn to compete. — Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) August 16, 2015

To the victor go the spoils; the spoils don't get divided up evenly among the victor and everyone who finished behind him or her.

As a country, America has fallen off in recent years. Jobs and opportunities have moved overseas because we're no longer hungry.

The American spirit took a big hit, and a lot of folks are just looking for a handout; participation trophies could have more to do with that than we care to admit.

Yes, Harrison's kids are only six and eight, so maybe it wouldn't be so bad for them to keep their trophies, but that's up to James Harrison as a parent.

Kids don't always need a trophy and a pat on the back, they need to have a fire inside of them that propels them to come back hungrier and stronger for the next opportunity.

This country needs more parents like James Harrison, who aren't afraid to stick up for what they believe in and teach their kids the benefits of losing.

Losing should be embraced, but that doesn't mean it should be celebrated and then swept under the rug. Being a loser can be the greatest motivator for becoming a winner, but only if that loss is acknowledged.

How can we ever know success if we never know failure?

George, James and others are right. It definitely starts with showing up and trying your best, but the sooner in life kids realize participation is not synonymous with success, the better off we'll be as a society and a country.