Last month Pittsburgh Steelers' linebacker James Harrison posted the following image to his Instagram account:

//instagram.com/jhharrison92/
Source: James Harrison's Instagram Page, https://instagram.com/jhharrison92/

It garnered about 16,000 more likes than his previous image, and a whopping 3,700 more comments. The text of the image read in part, "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."

Harrison (who incidentally has earned two Super Bowl rings and been a 5-time Pro Bowl pick, so he clearly knows a thing or two about working hard on the field) set off a national debate, with most people weighing in that they agreed with Harrison and feel participation trophies should not be given out.

Given that participation trophies will continue to persist for at least a few more years before we potentially see a real sea change, what can you do as you start signing your kids up for sports and other afterschool activities now that school is back in session?

1) Contextualize the trophy

When I was researching Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, I interviewed 37 elementary-school age kids who participate competitively in chess, dance, and soccer. These were some of the most illuminating and gratifying conversations I had. Take, for example, a boy I describe on page 187, "Gesturing to some trophies in his collection that he had received for participating in tennis and hockey seasons, [he] explained, “Those aren’t really place trophies, they are just participation trophies. When I count my trophies I only count the ones I won.” 

Kids are clearly quite savvy when it comes to these rewards. They very quickly learn to decode the symbolic meaning behind them, starting with that first participation trophy, which appears to hold special significance. The children I met could easily recall the first trophy they received and the first trophy they won—an important distinction—so we might think of these first awards as similar to the practice of framing the first dollar earned, which indicates its important symbolic value. Another boy, whose first participation trophy was packed away in the basement, easily remembered the tournament he played in when he won it: “Well, the first trophy I ever got was at a tournament that my chess teacher organized. I got two and a half points out of four.”

Without proper guidance from adults-- both parents and coaches-- kids may attach the wrong meaning to these otherwise meaningless objects. There should always be a discussion about why a trophy is being given out and what it does or does not mean both in the moment and in the longer term. Make any occasion like this an opportunity to talk about what it might or might not represent for your child.

2) Ask ahead of time

As you think about back-to-school activities, it's worth thinking ahead to those end-of-season celebrations, too. If a coach or organization has a very different view than you do it is possible you should consider looking for alternative venues/activities for your child. However, if your child really wants to participate, even if you have an ideological difference with the coach, you can talk about what a trophy might mean or how your child should see it (maybe it's for making all the practices without complaint, or scoring their first ever goal) and that is how the family will commemorate the experience.

Otherwise, you could propose a team celebration where each child's biggest accomplishment over that team's season gets mentioned-- perhaps even announced by a teammate-- over pizza or ice cream. This places the emphasis on celebrating community and relationships and not "just" winning and/or skill development.

3) Take the opportunity to ask about the coach's qualifications

Inquiries about participation trophies may lead to other questions that may reveal key differences between a family and the teacher/coach/organization. Knowing early on there could be strife saves everyone some drama, and families much-needed time and money. As I have written elsewhere, many people erroneously assume the teacher or coach they hire to work with their child are properly trained and credentialied in a given activity or in education of children more generally. Talking beforehand gives parents the chance to be sure everything is copacetic before making a bigger commitment.

Once the season begins though, it's best to back off and let the coach or teacher take the lead. And I do not recommend making a child return a trophy, as Harrison suggested in his Instagram post (it is unclear if they trophies were actually ever returned). It is not his sons' faults that no one asked beforehand what the participation trophy policy was. The boys earned those by showing up, clearly per coach expectations, even if their dad does not agree. I'm sure James Harrison has learned now to ask at the beginning of the season, a lesson that can benefit other parents as well, helping them earn their own "parental participation prize."

About the Author

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D.

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture, competition, childhood and parenting.

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