What’s the matter with kids today? Participation trophies.
That’s the argument, anyway — and it’s advanced by athletescoaches, cable-news pundits, blowhard musicians, and more. “Now they got these things called participation trophies, where if your child just participates, he gets a trophy for just showing up,” said talk show host Steve Harvey. “But kids need to know that when you grow up, you ain’t gonna get no trophy.”
There’s a fundamental flaw in this argument, though — and it undercuts the entire criticism of participation trophies. The flaw is this: People like Harvey treat participation trophies as new, but they’re not new at all. Participation trophies were created in the 1920s, were central to the development of youth sports, became especially popular in the 1960s, and were only demonized starting around the 1990s.
In other words, “kids today”Are not the first generation to get these trophies — which means they cannot be uniquely impacted by them. Steve Harvey’s generation got these things too. So, are participation trophies a harmful force that’s ruined a century’s worth of children, or a benign force that does not really matter?
To answer that question, you first need to understand where the trophies came from.
The history of participation trophies
Sports have existed since ancient times, but organized “youth sports” took off at the turn of the 20th Century. It was the product of two overlapping movements. The first was the decline of child labor: Millions of children were working often long and dangerous hours in the early 1900s, until a series of laws reduced those numbers. Then a new set of laws gave those kids something to do: They’d go to school! Massachusetts was the first state to make school mandatory, in 1852. Mississippi was the last, in 1917.
Once kids were in school, they had designated school time and free time. This was a new concept back then, and parents suddenly needed to occupy their children’s downtime. Parents did not trust kids to play unsupervised, so organized sports became the solution. In 1903, for example, New York’s public school system created the New York City Public School Athletic League for Boys. Many other cities and states followed.
From the very beginning, kids were getting hurt and parents were overly aggressive. Then World War I broke out, and people became concerned about youth sports’ level of competitiveness. “So much of the American ethos was oriented around getting people conscripted into the war effort, where there were literally life and death stakes to competition,” says historian Shaun Scott, author of the book, Millennials and the Moments That Made Us. “You could imagine why there would be a cultural response that says, ‘Maybe we do not need to double down on that right now.'”
By the late 1920s and into the 1930s, a movement against youth sports had begun. Some schools start to cancel their sports programs, and news reports raised alarm about the harms of competition. “College youths, recklessly exerting themselves in competitive sports for the glory of their alma mater, may unwittingly cause themselves great bodily harm,” the Associated Press reported in 1931.
Sports advocates began looking for a solution, and private leagues like Little League formed. To calm parents’ fears about competition, both school and private programs began to emphasize the benefits of sports — teamwork! a love of the game! —over the importance of winning. To drive that message home, they started handing out participation trophies.
This was treated as a good thing, and regularly published in local newspapers. For example, here’s a report from The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924, which said a participation trophy will “create more interest in athletics than ever before.”
And here’s another report from the Birmingham News in 1929, reporting on a “coveted” participation trophy:
The trophies picked up steam during the 1950s and 1970s, when now-familiar concepts like self esteem and self worth became popularized. “Parents wondered, ‘How are we going to build kids’ self-worth?'” Says Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “So they gave everybody a participation trophy.”
It’s not clear exactly why people turned against the participation trophy, but it seems to have happened in the 1990s. Slate writer Stefan Fatsis searched through newspaper archives looking for the first time anyone used “participation trophy” in a negative way, and found a 1993 article in the Minnesota St. Cloud Times. The paper quoted a local girl’s softball coach, who said her team had gotten “enough participation trophies. Now we’d like to get a ‘place’ trophy. “
It was all downhill from there. Soon newspapers around America were running columns and commentary about how terrible the participation trophy is – and treating it as a totally new phenomenon. By the early 2000s, some youth sports leagues eliminated the participation trophy entirely.
But are they actually bad?
Today, participation trophies have a terrible reputation. But are they actually bad for kids?
“The whole controversy about participation trophies has taken on more importance than it deserves,” says Kenneth Barish, Ph.D.a clinical professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College, who is also on the faculty of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and the William Alanson White Institute Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program.
He says the issue is simple: “When you give a young kid a trophy for participation, you’ve encouraged participation — which is what you want,” he says. Little kids do not understand concepts like winning and losing anyway, so sports is where they can learn important lessons about teamwork, following rules, and putting in effort.
By the time a kid reaches 13, however, they fully understand the difference between winning and losing. “So they do not want a trophy for participation,” Barish says. “It does not mean anything to them anymore.” There’s no real point in giving them one, he says, but there’s also no harm in doing so. They’ll just discard it.
In short: Participation trophies aren’t a bad influence on kids today, just like they were not a bad influence on kids of 100 years ago. Anyone who says otherwise can get a participation trophy for trying to stir up controversy — but of course, that does not mean much.
Want to hear more about the history and benefits of participation trophies? Listen to this podcastfrom which this article was adapted.
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