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Jonathan Fader, Ph.D.
Jonathan Fader Ph.D.

Should We Give Our Kids Participation Trophies?

They've become a political controversy. But what does psychology tell us?

Last month, I was invited on Fox & Friends to discuss participation trophies. Detested by some, celebrated by others, they’ve become a hot topic again after a recent poll at Reason Magazine showed that 57 percent of people felt that trophies should only be given to winners.

But underneath all that, the question remains: Should we give our kids trophies just for showing up?

Those perceptions change drastically among different economic and political groups, making the debate a proxy for larger political debates. As a sport psychologist, I think that's the wrong question to ask.

In my opinion, trophies are a bad metric for winners and losers alike. Countless studies have shown that we’re more committed to an activity when we do it out of passion, rather than an external reward such as a trophy.

The people who denigrate these trophies are often bent on teaching their kids that life has “winners” and “losers,” but this can also be a tricky matter. The science suggests that we need to praise our kids on process, not results. For example, instead of dealing with defeat by telling our kids that “everyone’s a winner at heart,” we should praise them for how hard they hustled, what they did right and how they improved.

But it’s not just the “losers” we need to worry about; it’s the “winners” too. Phrases like “You’re a winner” or “You’re a natural” can actually be toxic to how kids deal with losing. As the work of child psychologist Carol Dweck shows us, praising kids for their innate talents (in this study’s case, their intelligence) actually makes it more difficult for them to cope when they’re actually confronted with losing. Kids who are praised for their effort rather than their ability tend to strive harder, enjoy activities more, and deal with failure in a more resilient way.

So: should we give our kids participation trophies?

To be honest, it depends. As an unexpected surprise for someone’s unwavering dedication and effort — absolutely! As a meaningless gesture for just “showing up” — maybe not. Kids are smart, and they know that being handed a participation trophy isn’t the same as winning.

I coach tons of world-class athletes, and the pride they feel from a big win doesn’t come from a ring, or a trophy, and it doesn’t come from someone else telling them they’re the best. That moment of pride comes from out-performing the best of the best, from knowing that years of relentless training led them to the performance of a lifetime. The pride comes from doing what they love and being the best at it.

And that’s a feeling no trophy can provide.

For more on sport psychology and motivation, follow Dr. Fader on Twitter or Facebook, and watch Dr. Fader's appearance on Fox & Friends below.

About the Author
Jonathan Fader, Ph.D.

Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., is a psychologist and an assistant professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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