Are Participation Trophies A Good Thing?

In 2015, CNN reported that James Harrison, NFL football player, tweeted to the world that his two children received participation trophies for playing on sports teams. He decided to send the trophies back because he believed it set a bad example for his kids. His rationale is that kids need to be encouraged to do their best, not just show up.

Harrison’s beliefs that children need to be encouraged for their efforts is echoed in the work of Carol Dweck and a recent longitudinal study in which researchers were trying to get a handle on why there appear to be so many more narcissistic individuals these days. Was there something going on in the parenting the narcissist received that helped promote such beliefs?

Dweck’s Work on Praising Effort and Developing Resiliency –

Carol Dweck is a Stanford University professor, social psychologist and researcher. She has done extensive research on the subject of motivation in children. She has consistently found in her research that praising children for their abilities, such as intelligence or athleticism, actually has a negative consequence on their future motivation. Dweck has found that it is far better to praise children for their efforts.

Also, when children are praised with words such as, “You are so bright,” or “You are a natural athlete,” or some other quality that is described as though it is innate and cannot be changed, it harms a child’s ability to persist when they are failing. Also, children tend to avoid risk, if they perceive that there is one of these qualities that they realize they don’t currently possess. They begin to think being good at sports or in school is something that some possess and that it cannot be changed or improved.

Thus, the best way to help children be independent, strong, resilient risk-takers who can improve whatever they choose about themselves by effort and application is to praise their efforts. The problem with everyone getting a trophy, when they may not have even tried very hard at all, is that they will not develop resiliency to apply more effort when the going gets tough.

Brummelman on Germinating Future Narcissists –

There is a twin problem with everyone getting a trophy, even when they do not try much at all. A 2015 longitudinal study by an international group of university researchers led by Brummelman found when parents were too liberal in their praise and praised their children when they did not deserve it, children were likely to feel as though they were superior to others and were more entitled than others. This leads to children who are more predisposed to become narcissists.

Brummelman et. al. explained the risks of these children becoming adults who have twin problems. One problem is the desire to continue to feed their ego through aggressive behavior when the world does not provide more praise and other things they believe they are “entitled” to. Another problem is that narcissists do not have the skills to navigate life’s inevitable setbacks and the resiliency to overcome obstacles. Instead, they are more likely to prey on others to get their needs met.

Another key idea from Brummelman’s study is that the parents who truly loved their kids and made it clear they loved them in authentic ways ended up with kids who had true self-esteem. They were loved, so they felt worthy.

Thus, the trophies per se are not the real issue. The real issue is that we need to praise effort, when it is deserving. We need to help our children see that they can rise above their deficiencies, with effort and evaluation, so that they can be resilient and strong in the face of adversity. We also need to withhold praise when it is not warranted, so kids don’t get their egos over-inflated. They need our love instead.

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