Trophy fatigue

Does contemporary culture place too much emphasis on mere symbols of achievement? A recent New York Times op-ed essay thinks so, making the case that so-called “losing” is good for us. Especially for kids.

Ashley Merryman began with this:

AS children return to school this fall and sign up for a new year’s worth of extracurricular activities, parents should keep one question in mind. Whether your kid loves Little League or gymnastics, ask the program organizers this: “Which kids get awards?” If the answer is, “Everybody gets a trophy,” find another program.

Merryman goes on to make the case that the current fashion of making sure no one feels left out actually undercuts self-esteem and de-motivates effort.

Kingergarteners at an awards ceremony. Photo: imelda, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Kingergarteners at an awards ceremony. Photo: imelda, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

To be fair, “kids today” didn’t demand all this constant flattery. As with so many things, lapses of that sort (if you find them mis-guided, as I do) are really the fault of parents, or a larger society that caters to narcissism.

Merryman describes how she would change the everyone-gets-a-trophy atmosphere:

If I were a baseball coach, I would announce at the first meeting that there would be only three awards: Best Overall, Most Improved and Best Sportsmanship. Then I’d hand the kids a list of things they’d have to do to earn one of those trophies. They would know from the get-go that excellence, improvement, character and persistence were valued.

I like what is being rewarded in her scenario. Kids actually do know (and often care about) who emerges as the “best” athlete. Only a few star players will be in the running for that distinction. But everyone can shoot for improvement. And if good sportsmanship is not part of the program that’s a big problem right there. Teamwork, compassion, self-improvement and sportsmanship are all traits worth fostering.

In that respect, her essay may be mislabeled. It’s not about losing. It’s about how we play, work or interact.

Issues of recognition and reward are not confined to the world of sport. They spill into many aspects of life. When still parenting a school-aged child, I could paper the walls with the achievement certificates that were seemingly handed out like confetti. I found it excessive. But who dares be the Grinch and insist that praise fire hose be turned down?

‘Twas ever thus, I suppose. I’m a “boomer” (born between 1946-1964). That alone puts me on the stodgy side of any “trophies for all” debate. And the generation that reared me, shaped by depression and war, was even more conservative about self-expression and expectations of recognition or reward.

Maybe it’s just something that can’t be changed and must simply be understood. Witness the wide span of articles about how different generations co-exist or clash in the workplace, as a result of diverse expectations.

I mentioned this topic as a possible post to NCPR webmaster Dale Hobson (another boomer).

As usual, he said something illuminating that I’d like to quote: “Competition has a very limited scope in actual living. I don’t win or lose each day at work. I co-operate and collaborate with others to accomplish an end, to make something. Who wins or loses at making dinner, or taking the kids to soccer practice?”

Indeed.

So here’s the question: is there a baseline for praise that’s wise and wholesome? Or does that depend on your own generational view and what current culture expects?

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4 Responses to “Trophy fatigue”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    To change the lines in a well known song, “Looking for praise in all the wrong places.”
    As Ricky Nelson once sang in The Garden Party, “You have to please yourself.”
    The problem with too much freely given praise and awards is how it can make you feel self-satisfied and prevent you from trying to improve.
    Left alone, you know you can do better.
    I sometimes think those who are always saying “how great our kids are” are really trying to claim what great parents or teachers they are. So who is praising whom?

  2. I think we’ve lost something else: the idea of appreciating something for its intrinsic value, rather than to win an award (be it real or inflated). The recent insane controversy over a reading contest in Hudson Falls, NY is a great example. Are these kids developing the love of reading or the love of competition, the love of trying to win a prize?

  3. Dan Murphy says:

    To Dale Hobson’s comment that he is not in competition at work, is that really true Mr. Hobson.

    The workplace is the same as a sports team. While the team is all working together for the win and you are trying to help and improve your teammates, you are also in competition with them, whether it be for playing time, recognition, or awards. You are on the same team, and working together, but also competing all the same.

    Identical to the workforce. You may be collaborating and working with others in your department for a common goal, but you are still in competition. I assume you received your position because you had a better resume that others. I assume that promotions are based (at least somewhat) on merit. You can be working together, but you are still competing to stand out for your individual contribution, so you will benefit from your effort.

    You do win or lose each day. There might not be an actual scoreboard, but I would argue that the majority of your activities can be seen as a daily win or loss, and you would benefit from seeing them that way. Whether it is your daily exercise routine, your goal of saving X amount of money each month for retirement, getting a project completed by the deadline, or how fast you can drive to work (joking)… Everything is a competition, some are personal, some are in the workplace, and some are for your children’s love (again joking).

    If you embrace the completion, you will find yourself excelling. If you go with the flow, and accept the trophy for mediocrity, you will never end up bettering yourself.

  4. Dale Hobson says:

    Dan Murphy said “The workplace is the same as a sports team. While the team is all working together for the win and you are trying to help and improve your teammates, you are also in competition with them, whether it be for playing time, recognition, or awards. You are on the same team, and working together, but also competing all the same.”

    Some workplaces operate as you describe, Dan–I have tried to avoid them throughout my career. NCPR is a small not-for-profit. I occupy the same position I was hired for in 2001 and expect to work it until retirement. The only position above me is station manager–which I have neither the skills nor temperament for, nor is there any position below me with an eager beaver snapping at my heels. There is no competing public broadcaster across town to jump ship to and I have no inclination to move.

    When I was on a sports team in school, I competed against my own previous times. Yes, it was nice to beat other teams, but that wasn’t why I ran. And it’s nice to be recognized as a quality outfit among our peers, but that is not why I work.

    And yet I still get better at what I do with every year (at least I think I do). The rah-rah of competition has always been kind of lost on me.

    Dale Hobson, NCPR