Why Participant Ribbons Are Bullshit

I’ve read a lot of gripes about whether or not every kid should get a trophy just for showing up. The defenders talk about how competition divides kids into winners and losers. The detractors talk about how rewarding kids for bare-minimum effort leads to entitlement and failure. Both sides have valid points, but what the self-esteem supporters fail to realize is getting a trophy for doing badly, or fuck-all, does nothing for anyone’s self-esteem save the back-patting school administrators who think they can do the bare-minimum to make every child feel included and call it a day.

Kids are not stupid. When everyone gets a participant ribbon on track-and-field day, they know all it means is “thanks for showing up.” It’s an insult if the rest of the year kids have been discouraged from participating by asshole peers and teachers who either play favorites or don’t care. The school system has traditionally done nothing to make Phys. Ed. enjoyable to anyone who isn’t good at sports already.

If you failed swimming class, you had to take that level again because the lifeguards weren’t going to throw you in the deep end if you couldn’t float. The schools themselves had no such remedial classes for the unfit or uncoordinated. Likewise, extra-curricular lessons have been typically geared towards kids who are already good at hitting a ball or jumping over high-horses.

For example, at six years old I tried out for a gymnastics class. The “teacher” told me to stand on my head. I’d never done it before, but instead of demonstrating how, or setting up some novice exercise to do instead, she yelled at me to keep trying until she decided I was hopeless and gave up. As a result, I gave up too. Thanks, lady!

I could have accepted failure if I’d been shown the steps it would take to eventually succeed. I would have worked at it. Kids enjoy working towards a goal, and they should be allowed to fail along the way – and be taught that failure isn’t the end of the world. In the end, the reward is being able to do the thing itself. If you give a kid a trophy then, it will actually mean something.

A trophy is a symbol, and if you hand them out for non-accomplishments, all kids will learn is that trophies don’t matter. If you turn all symbols into empty gestures, you turn the world into nothing but empty gestures. That’s how the youth of yesterday became the disgruntled. If nothing matters, why should they put in any effort? It’s not about rewarding the few at the expense of the many. It’s about showing them how effort pays off.

We don’t all have to be good at the same things, or even the best at them. If you can make struggling kids feel like they don’t completely suck at gym, or spelling, or math, you’ve put them on the right path. A “good job” sticker for minor gains might help – but probably not. What really matters is being good at something. While some kids are scoring trophies for basketball, others are picked for the city science fair. They don’t even need to win if you teach them good sportsmanship. When you love what you do, the intrinsic rewards are there, and a trophy is no more than a reminder – and if you don’t make participating fun, win or lose, a participant ribbon isn’t going to make it any better.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.