Does a Piece of Plastic Buy Self Esteem?

by | Mar 1, 2018 | Parenting | 6 comments

I remember it so well. My now college-age son played on a recreation youth basketball team as a little fella.  They were terrible, maybe scored 4 points in a game, if they were lucky. They were so bad it was cute… kinda.  At the end of the season I mentioned to my husband that we had to give the team mom money for the trophy.  My husband-the consummate coach- stopped in his tracks, looked at me and in complete dismay asked “What’s the trophy for? What did they win? There’s no way they won their league”.  I proceeded to tell him that everyone gets a trophy because we must pay for it. The look on his face said it all.

That moment was the beginning of our yearly discussion over what to do at the end of each sporting season when we were asked to purchase a participation trophy for their role on the team.  Win or lose, play well or suck, everyone got a trophy.  And while we continued to fork over for the trophy, the sole reason was simple: we didn’t want to have to explain to our young child why every other teammate got a trophy and he didn’t. Leaving him out of acquiring the useless dust collector felt cruel and mean.  So, we coughed up the money—begrudgingly—and his shelf of “trophies” grew.

It’s a national debate—the whole idea of “The Participation Trophy Mentality”.  Some call it a syndrome, others a culture.  There are some parents who completely agree with the philosophy and want to reward their kids for their efforts, celebrate their attempts, make their kid feel good for just being a part of the process.  Others think this has made a soft generation, entitled kids who think that you get an “A for effort” or that everyone is a winner regardless of the end score. Parents are divided, and it can become a heated conversation between parent’s sitting next to each other on the bleachers.  When it comes to issues related to their kids, parents get coo-coo.

News flash: it’s human nature to compete.  Competition is natural.  While we want to shelter our kids from sadness or disappointment, learning to lose is one of the most valuable lessons kids can learn. Is it painful?  Sure. Would we rather win? Absolutely. Is it more fun to win? Of course. As much as we want to see our kids happy all the time, it’s not possible.  Losing is inevitable but it doesn’t define you as a person, a player, or a team.

“When you lose, don’t lose the lesson”.  Not only does losing teach how to handle letdowns, it teaches humility and that life is full of second chances. As much as losing sucks, it prepares kids for negative life experiences and can develop a sense of compassion and empathy for others who experience disappointment.  Learning to lose with good sportsmanship serves as a reminder that life goes on after a failure and that the best way to combat the negative feelings connected to losing is to work harder to create different results.

Parents who shield their kids from disappointments or failure are not doing their kids a favor. As matter of fact, it’s a tremendous disservice.  Let’s be honest—life is full of letdowns and setbacks.  Being frustrated with an outcome can lead to two choices: accept the disappointment or change your approach.  There is empowerment to be had when we dig in, get better and work harder.  While the results are not guaranteed to bring a championship, they are guaranteed to make the individual see their potential, create a goal and work towards it. Learning to lose is learning to win.

Growing up we played board games all the time. There was a clear winner and a clear loser. At the end of a marathon four-hour Monopoly game, someone ended up with the most houses, hotels and money and they were declared the winner. The rest of us moaned and groaned but accepted our defeat.  It was part of life.  Likewise, trophies were special back then—only the winners got them.  They had value because we knew it meant that it had been earned, not just given, or bought.

When my son was in tee-ball, a dear friend gave him a real deal baseball scoring set—the flip up thing that you can clearly see which team has more runs. He got it because he hated not knowing who won at the end of the game. The league philosophy was “everyone was a winner” so there was no score keeping. For three or four games he and his team kept score in the dugout and loved it. They knew at the end of the game if they had won or lost and it added to the excitement and competition of the game.

Until a mom from another team complained.  She claimed it wasn’t in the right “spirit of the game” to keep score and every boy should feel good about himself when the game was over.  I hope her son eventually learned to handle loss and she didn’t coddle his precious spirit right up to his high school graduation. In her attempt to make him “feel good”, she possibly deprived him of developing confidence and strength in handling the difficulties that life will throw at you, literally.  Life is not all about sports, but sports are all about life.

Eventually we were told we could no longer bring that score thing into the dugout and the boys were disappointed. Thankfully they had a competitive, but positive coach, who allowed us to continue to keep score and saw no problem in letting the boys know at the end of the game whether they had won or lost. No kids ever cried, felt demoralized or left with slumped shoulders because they ended up on the short end of the stick. They appreciated knowing where they fell and what they needed to do get better.

There is beauty in getting back up after you fall.  Losing is part of competition and without losing, our kids will never appreciate the feeling you get when all the hard work pays off and you feel successful and triumphant. Depriving them of the pain is also depriving them of the joy.  If we automatically give kids an award, what is there to work for?  It’s an unrealistic expectation that life is fair, and everyone gets the same rewards.  Our job as parents is not to set our kids up, it is to prepare our kids to know what it takes to achieve success.  Success isn’t given, success is earned.

Kids are smarter than adults- they know that being handed a participation trophy is no where near the same as winning. Giving a child a trophy “just because” merely means five minutes of pride and a lifetime of dust.  Participation trophies don’t teach our children lessons that will make them resilient, strong, determined adults.  Self-esteem won’t come from a cheap piece of plastic mounted on a slab of fake stone. Self-esteem comes from an evolution of learning important life lessons: hard work, self-discipline, inner-value, self- acceptance, and self-control.  If we want to teach our kids to be proud of themselves, make them work for something, earn it and be proud of what they have done.  That’s a feeling no trophy can ever give.


  1. Teresa S

    Thank you for this important reminder and your beautifully written and thoughtful posts, Kelly. I agree with you so much. My new mantra- ‘Depriving them of the pain is also depriving them of the joy’…

  2. Pat

    Kayla ran cross country starting in fourth grade. Her first meet she came in twenty something and received a participation ribbon. She wanted a medal that the first ten runners got. Gpa ran cross country in high school and said he would coach her. He would walk back to about half way and tell her what number she was and how many girls to pass. For the next three years she received a medal every meet.

  3. Maureen

    I love this! You nailed it, Kel!

  4. Katie

    Great article. Totally agree with you

  5. Lourdes

    Love it!!! Couldn’t agree more. Maybe this should go out to all youth sports 😉

  6. WIlliam Paul

    Way to go Kel, you hit it out of the ball park,
    Dee & Pat


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