The Participation Award Mentality I Hate – and Create

“Smile for the camera, boys!”  “Over here now!”  “Act silly for this one!”

I stood alongside my fellow soccer parents taking pictures of our team with outward pride and inner turmoil.  A long weekend of soccer was over and our kids smiled broadly as new medallions hung from their necks.  By the numbers, the team hadn’t been overly successful (a 1-2 record and a -10 goal differential).  Certainly the merit of the medals they wore could be questioned.  As we packed up our gear for the day, my Good-Bad Dad conflict began – how to reconcile the pride I felt for our boys’ stellar effort against my disdain for the participation awards draped around their necks.

Lynden (Age 8) with his soccer team - Auburndale, FL

Lynden (Age 8) with his soccer team (Feb. 2016)

First things first, it’s not the hardware I hate but the idea that an award is a right and not a privilege.  When I think about participation awards in this context, I’ve come to realize that I’m part of the problem.

I can think of two instances during the last week where I’ve provided merit-less awards to my children.  First, I bought a pack of gum to reward my 3-year-old for sitting nicely in the grocery cart during an errand.  This was a preemptive strike by this GBD – promising the gum prior to any tantrum taking place because I was in a hurry.

The next example took place just last night as I promised my daughter that I would read an extra book at bedtime if her clean laundry was put away neatly.  Vivi claimed that she was just “too tired” to do it otherwise.  I got what I asked for and so did she.

In both cases above and with participation awards in general, the idea is the same – rewarding an act that should be otherwise expected.  I expect my son’s team to play their best when they take the field.  I expect my kids to complete the minor chores I ask them to.  I fear that I’m creating the expectation that an award is needed to give merit to the activity.

This system of rewarding is a byproduct of my Good-Bad Dad tendencies.  My family is fully committed to a kid activity each night.  The constant running necessitates a precise routine to get everything done in order to do it all over again tomorrow.  It’s easy to give in to providing incentives to keep order at home and to navigate at the fast pace required to keep up.

The relentless hustle might very well have my kids looking for an extra push to muster up the energy required to play hard, to master their dance routine or to focus on their Chapter 10 Geometry quiz.  Hell, I might even need my kids to have incentives in front of them so that I place value on fitting the activity into our daily calendar – a revelation that is difficult to admit.

Though I’ve come to the realization that I’m handing out participation-like awards daily, I don’t have to sign myself up to agreeing with the concept.   I do need to find that “sweet-spot” where the efforts they give and the rewards that come as a result are in balance.

I have a couple of ideas on how I might do that:

  • I should slow down: I can give the kids (and me) time to enjoy accomplishments authentically.
  • Do more selective celebrating: I want my kids to feel great about accomplishments so I have to (and want to) acknowledge great efforts – just not EVERY effort.  The less I celebrate the expected, the more important the achievements I celebrate become.
  • Check my motivations: I should make sure that I’ve over-scheduled my kids for good reason – not so they find another forum to be patted on the back, to collect more trophies or to show others what a fantastic athlete/performer/kid they are. I know they’re great already!

My disdain for participation trophies will remain although I’m an admitted accomplice to contributing to the mentality that makes them prevalent.

I’ll still smile proudly when my son hangs the “1-2 record, -10 goal differential” medal on his nightstand tonight.  I’ll still share the pictures of the team on social media with the caption, “So proud of our team.  Way to go, boys!”

I’ll do this while hoping that there will be a time when the pride of participating (whether it be soccer, dancing, acting or the debate team) is permanently detached from any reward given as a result.


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