Should kids receive participation trophies?

Earlier this year, my 6-year-old daughter Hayley auditioned for the school talent show. She and her friend performed the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” ballet routine they had perfected in dance class. But when I picked Hayley up from school, I could tell that they didn’t make the cut. As it turns out, more than 60 kids auditioned for the talent show, which only had room for 20 acts.

“I’m done dancing,” she announced.

My daughter, who has been dancing since she was 2, had not been rejected before. I wanted it to stay that way, at least for a few more years.

But it got me thinking about the larger issue: at what age do we make the switch from recognizing kids for their efforts to awarding them for their abilities?

A trophy for participation

Recreational sports often award every child at the end of a game or season with ribbons, medals and trophies for simply participating. And it isn’t uncommon in sports leagues for younger kids to forget keeping score altogether to prevent them from feeling bad about themselves.

Nick Glenn, a Chicago dad who coaches his 9-year-old son’s flag football team, believes recognition for participation is an incentive to keep kids focused and to encourage them stickw with it. After every game—win or lose—young players are awarded medals.

“We lost every game, but that wasn’t the takeaway for them,” he says. “Instead, we built a solid foundation on fun and camaraderie, which will eventually spark their drive to compete as they get older.”

Charlie Friedman, director of Viking Gymnastics in Niles, says her facility follows similar suit. At the end of each class cycle, Viking hosts a showcase for young gymnasts to perform for family. They are then awarded ribbons or medals, something Friedman says serves as positive reinforcement.

“We hope that starting them off by recognizing what they are striving for from the beginning will help them reach their goals of one day competing if that is their desire,” she says.

Fueling the growth of the entitlement generation

While there are proponents of the “A for effort” line of thinking, there’s another group of parents who worry that embracing this mentality can lead to a culture of kids expecting praise for doing the bare minimum.

A study in 2015 conducted by researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that children whose parents overvalued them are more likely to develop narcissistic traits, such as superiority and entitlement. Additionally, when it comes to dealing with disappointment later in life, the study found they also show an increase in depression and anxiety, as well as a lack of coping skills.

Preparation for the real world

Katrina Perrone has grown accustomed to watching her 8-year-old daughter, Alyssa, excel in everything she does, both inside and outside of school.

But her daughter recently received a harsh dose of reality when she, too, got cut from the school talent show—one she expected to be a shoo-in for.

“She cried when she found out she didn’t make it, but I was glad she saw that she can’t always be number one,” Perrone says. “I think it’s good that Alyssa learns rejection now so she knows how to handle it.”

Research shows that disappointments can be actually beneficial for children. Learning to deal with setbacks helps them to develop key characteristics they’ll need to succeed, such as coping skills and emotional resilience.

Psychotherapist Kelly LaPorte of Naperville Counseling Center says when it comes to disappointment, the best thing parents can do for their children is to be there for them.

 While every child is different, she says parents can use some basic skills to help their children deal with the sting of rejection.  Here are a few of her favorites:

Validate their feelings: Let your child know that they are being heard and that their feelings are valid.

Use the experience to motivate them: If their team lost the soccer game, for example, use that experience going into the next game to gain new skills to apply and grow as a team.

Normalize the experience: Your child will benefit greatly if you are able to show them to expect these moments every now and then.

Model the behavior: Model positive ways to handle rejection and your kids will follow.

Teach your child coping skills to use when they feel rejected: Breathing exercises, physical exercise and venting will help teach your child how to use negative energy and put it into something good and positive.

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.

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