Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison drew headlines when he posted on his Facebook page that he would have his kids return the “participation trophies” they received. Among his choice words, he said, “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.”
Not surprisingly, this was met with a rather raucous crowd of supporters for his decision, many of them echoing the sentiment that these kids were being given something for nothing, and that they were continuing our downward spiral into a society of losers getting rewarded for just showing up.
If I may offer this suggestion to you, Mr. Harrison — and I mean this from one father to another with the utmost respect I have for you as a father and as a person who is paid to tackle people for a living — lighten up, man.
First off, your kids are 6 and 8. How about ease up on the boot camp for a few years? A participation trophy isn’t going to warp them into a sense of self entitlement anymore than a Superman sticker from the doctor after getting a booster shot is going to make them feel entitled to be a doctor. Or Superman.
Second, did I mention they are 6 and 8?
Look, I get the national concern over the weakening of our children and how we are raising a generation of entitled brats who feel like they get everything without having to actually do anything. It’s a little something sociologists call “Every generation ever.”
Yes, I understand the “everyone’s a winner” mentality can be detrimental. And a lot of people have it. Truth of the matter is, not every kid is going to be a winner in life. It’s unfortunate, but true. But I’m all for letting kids in the first decade or so of their lives just live their lives in the awesome bubble that you only get for that short period of time. Think back to when you were 8 — remember all the time you spent worrying about making a house payment, your relationship status, and when you needed to get your tires replaced? No? Exactly. Because you were in that short window of your life when the world was perfect.
My kids have gotten participation trophies over the years, and I have yet to see the negative side effects it has on them. For one thing, when they were on teams that did not win the championship, they saw the really big trophy the winning team got.
I just don’t see the harm in giving a little something to everyone when they finish the season. Pretty sure Mr. Harrison didn’t forego his paycheck in years when the Steelers didn’t hoist the Lombardi trophy.
The fact of the matter is that there is something to be said for participation. But if your attempt at participation hinges on win or you’re a failure, you’re going to have a lot of kids bailing on endeavors because, let’s face it — not everyone is the star of the show.
When I was a kid, my dad never let us win. But he did scale back the competition on occasion. I only realized that when I became a parent. My dad taught me chess at a young age. He could have annihilated me early on in each game, but he didn’t. He gave me a participation trophy each game by saying. “Yeah, you don’t want to move your queen there.” And I kept playing. For what it’s worth, I have beaten my dad at chess a grand total of one time. But I kept playing.
I have taken that approach with my kids. For example, when I play basketball with them, I can easily dominate them and win in a blowout. I don’t do that, because I want them to keep playing. Call it a participation trophy. But when the final score is 21-14, rather than 21-0, they’re more likely to keep playing and keep trying and keep getting better.
So, Mr. Harrison, I say to you this — I understand where you’re coming from. But I also know what it’s like to be a kid and to be a parent. I also know what it’s like not to be the best at everything you do. When kids get into their teens, winning becomes real. Separate the wheat from the chaff. I get that. But when they are so young, you’re not breeding a generation of weakness. You’re breeding a generation who will come back again next season. And I’d much rather the kids of our nation take that participation trophy and say, “You know what? I’m going to participate again. And I know where not to move my queen next time.”
Mike Gibbons was born and raised in Aiken, S.C. A graduate of the University of Alabama, he now lives in Charleston. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @StandardMike.