Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Real Problem of Trophies

A recent youth sports pushback on awards for everyone followed by a teeing-off by an NFL player on
participation trophies has led to a recent wealth of opinions on the subject. I categorized them for you so you can choose which side(s) you're on:

Dallas News editorial:  : Awards should be only for winning and sportsmanship

bleuwater blog post:  they reward mediocrity

Bob Cook in Forbes: Calm down, people

Evan Grossman in Men's Journal:  They make our kids soft

Changing the Game Project: Misuse of limited funds

Ashley Merryman in New York Times:  Losing is good for you (includes social science research)

Aaron Blake in The Washington Post: Older generations knew better (includes opinion poll graph)

Patrice Bendig on Huffington Post:  As a twentysomething in the workplace I'm in praise withdrawal

Lisa Heffernan on Today: They reinforce the right values of effort, teamwork and persistence

Kelly Wallace on CNN: They have their place (i.e. with younger kids), aren't to blame for narcissistic kids (that would be parents), and are expected as much by parents as kids (esp. in high-cost sports). Links issue to earlier piece on how hard (and necessary) it is to let kids achieve and fail on their own.

Despite the different takes, all pretty much agree that losing is an exceptionally difficult emotional experience but a constant in life so buffering the blows when kids are young won't help them learn to cope when they're older. Also that parent overinvolvement, youth sport specialization and confusion about what constitutes self-esteem are formative issues for the last couple of generations.

What they disagree on is whether an inclusive celebration of participation is a bad thing by itself.

I've never been a coach but I know plenty and sympathize with the pressures but can't speak from that perspective. I've never received a participation trophy so I don't know if that feels good or kind of dumb; perhaps it depends on the context. Our neighbor Mr. Joe is currently thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail; if I spent six months on that journey a medal at the end that said "completer" might feel pretty special, regardless of my relative time.

But my main problem with trophies as a mom of nine kids is the issue touched on in some of the above pieces, both in practical and symbolic terms of clutter. Do you dust a plastic trophy without your kids' name on it? Do you throw it in a box? Ten years after it's been given do you chuck it in a landfill? And does having a host of relatively meaningless awards dilute the meaning of the few that symbolize stellar achievement or a big deal win?

Most of all, does it make me a bad mom if I quietly thin the chaff from the wheat?

As the mother of a large, sports-loving brood, most of whom have left this nest (and the awards behind), I am left with pockets of trophies and medals in almost every room.

They seem sacred childhood hallmarks so I've left them in places semi-honored to semi-obscured. But some are not aging well. Glued-on nameplates are peeling off, gold plastic is peeling off featureless black forms beneath. The truth is showing its ugly face: some of this stuff is junk.

And it obscures the truly great that lies in the cluttered midst. Academic honors for being the best of something in a school of 1000 students is impressive. So is a state championship, or an athletic conference first place or competitive invitational first place. Ironically, none of these trophies is made of the marble and steel, three-wish-granting-lantern form I cherished growing up. Those are still at my mom's house. And having to buy so freaking many, even the top gun awards these days aren't built to last.

So this week I decided to find the most important awards amongst the many and find a place of honor for them. The rest don't have to be chucked but can be periodically swept away in thorough, husband-led room cleanings. One of our kids already did this herself ("yeah, that stuff was taking up valuable real estate in my room") and Special Olympics medals get a pass. The rest of the kids don't care as long as they don't see the trophies getting thrown away because that seems kind of cold.

My parents had a glass-doored bookcase for this purpose. There's not a lot of those around these days.

Where would you put the "keepers" where they'd look like they belonged?
I think I know but I'm open to better ideas.
You're the best.

Love, Lisa


  1. You are right Lisa. Keep the ones with true meaning, true accomplishments. The rest will disappear on their own (with a little help from your friends)

    1. Wow, seems like I have clutter clearing elves. This would not have made my top three magic lantern wishes, but it's close ;).