The bizarre ‘participation trophy’ controversy is not about young people.
By Chris Rand
Do the unadulterated minds of children appreciate the symbolism of a trophy the way adults do? If not, children may not understand the irony of receiving a ‘participation trophy’ after failing in a competition.
Truly, the idea that giving a participation trophy is ‘wrong’ is born only from someone’s real experiences of what is true failure and what is true victory—with a complete or at least in-progress transition into adulthood as a requisite. And with the inevitable knowledge that ‘losers lose’ and ‘winners win,’ what impact does the participation symbol truly have on a young person at that point, anyway?
Of course, this question concerns only adults, and not children; and only adults with children who receive participation trophies in the first place.
Despite the controversy, the ‘participation trophy’ issue has never been a Millennial problem. The issue is not a problem of children today, either. It began as a dialogue between adults about parenting, and evolved into what it truly is today—a political issue.
According to HBO’s Real Sports, the culture of rewarding athletes for simply participating—or even for simply being on a roster—began in the late 20th Century to push the importance of self-esteem in education for children in struggling communities.
The debate over its impact on childhood development quickly spiraled out of control. Now, although there is validity to the claim that offering rewards without accomplishment can cause problems, the debate has become less about the overall welfare of children, and more about political and generational warfare.
To understand the phenomenon, let’s dig up the roots of the issue—the scientific findings that silently prop up its anti-youth discourse.
First, researchers have investigated as to whether undeserved praise is damaging to personal development. Prominent studies—some using rats—claim that unwarranted rewards pose disastrous consequences for personal development. For example, according to New York Magazine:
Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrates this… [In another study] of the kids praised for their intelligence, 40 percent lie, inflating their scores. Of the kids praised for effort, few lie.
Alone, these are interesting and useful findings—but too often they’re used to malign adults with opposing viewpoints or even demonize an entire generation of young adults—not over concern for children, but to validate one’s longstanding political claims about the issue.
To apply the findings of Dweck’s and others’ research to young people ‘as a generation,’ the premise must be that the vast majority of young people are like the flawed subjects of the experiment—their personal development suffered from being praised for an absence of effort—they received damaging ‘participation awards.’ So, from where does the idea that Millennials ‘as a generation’ fall neatly into this segment come?
Now, real, scientific research on the generational level—while it applies to the entire generation—is too often made to support desirable outcomes—as opposed to valid conclusions—that reinforce the notion that findings from research like Dweck’s can define an entire generation.
For example, the very real statistics from Pew Research showed that in 2014, 18- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. were more likely to be living in their parents’ home than with a spouse or partner in their own household. This is often cited to support the claim that young people are coddled losers, lazy, and in many cases, pathetic.
In these cases, laypeople and even journalists often forget the differences between correlation—a relationship between two events, such that young people’s narcissism, in an indeterminable but not total number of cases, is related in part to excessive praise—and causality, which is to say that excessive praise is the direct cause of that narcissism. What’s worse, that assumption is here applied to not only one, but all cases.
Now, the more likely causality for live-at-home Millennials:
Pew's Richard Fry argues that a challenging job market, particularly for young men, is a major factor driving the trend… Education is also a big part of the story…. Overall, a $17,000 earnings gap between college educated and high school educated adults age 25 to 32… With homeownership rates of those under 35 at a 20-year low, many more may be looking to rent. But as rents rise faster than wages, the rental housing market may also be keeping millennials from moving out of their parent’s homes.
The Academy of Educational Leadership Journal sneaks into their otherwise academic text their claim that “The Millennials seem to bring with them a hedonism, narcissism, and cavalier work ethic previously unknown in the American workforce,” taking full rhetorical protective advantage of the word “seem.”
But take heart, because those “negative traits are contradicted and counterbalanced by this same generation’s…willingness to provide an employer with hard work, albeit in exchange for virtually immediate reward and recognition,” says the Journal.
Meanwhile, back on earth, Lynda Gratton of Forbes observes that Millennials “require recognition, but not necessarily more trophies:"
Time Magazine rather negatively dubs Gen Y the ‘trophy generation’ who, as a result of receiving too many participation trophies as children, have a sense of entitlement far beyond that of their older peers… this may be misinterpreting the issue. We know Gen Y places a real emphasis on continual learning, and the drive for regular promotion should not be confused with the desire for regular feedback, which many see as a vital part of their personal and career development.
Gratton acknowledges that the 20th-century assumptions about the effects of these trophies doesn’t represent causality for what are misconstrued qualities among young people today to begin with.
"Recently it’s been rather trendy to be negative toward participation awards and to blame them for kids feeling entitled or not learning to be competitive. But what’s really causing that? Is it really a participation award or the environment they’re living in?"
-Louise Ristau, Executive Director, Awards and Personalization Association | Trophy Maker Representative
And today, the ‘participation trophy’ generalization is thrown casually—carelessly—into countless articles where otherwise objective stances are abandoned to drive home this sticky, safe, accepted claim about young people.
For example, in Laura Shear’s otherwise well-thought article about Millennials in the workplace, she transitions from citing an observation from an expert to her low-hanging claim, “The Gen Y cohort was the first generation awarded trophies just for showing up.” Her readers are left to draw their own conclusions from that statement—unrelated to her piece in a literal sense, but for the political atmosphere surrounding it.
The ‘trophy’ allegation is one of many war banners in the bizarre crusade against young people. Let’s put this one down for the moment and fill the gap with something better—perhaps a discussion about issues that affect all people instead.
Chris Rand got his master’s degree in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College, and he’s been in the writing game ever since. As an industry analyst and copywriter in technology, retail, workforce planning, and financial regulation, he believes data holds the keys to Truth, Justice, and Vindication for Millennials.