I’m writing this with trepidation but at the behest of my oldest son who suggested I should. This is one of those issues that is defined more by emotion than logic or science. Which may be why I long ago threw up my hands and declared, Let’s agree to disagree and leave it at that.
But here we are more three decades after I first wrestled with this particular parenting concern and it has neither disappeared nor been resolved. On the contrary. It was revived — and fanned to a broader audience by social media — when a professional athlete made headlines by doing what I probably would’ve done. What I (and my son) probably would do today, given the chance.
Last month, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison posted a photo on Instagram showing participation trophies received by his two sons, 8 and 6 years old. What he wrote to accompany that image sparked a firestorm that has spilled from sports publications to morning news shows.
"While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die," he wrote in part, "these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy… I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned…"
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Amen and hallelujah. Apparently Harrison adheres to the same parenting philosophy I hold dear. We do a disservice to our children by allowing them to believe that it’s OK to just show up. It’s not, and it will never be. No matter your talent, your connections, your expertise, hard work is essential to success. And — this is key — even when you give it your all, sometimes it’s not enough. You have to try, try, try again. Best for kids to learn this early on from the people who love them most and who have their best interests at heart.
I’m not known for my effusiveness or my generous use of praise. Wasn’t raised that way and I thank my parents for preparing me for a life that has proven more difficult that I had planned. Maybe my children will one day express the same measure of gratitude. But maybe not. Family lore has it that one of my older kids told a younger sibling, who was nervous about a new job, "Don’t worry, you’ve already experienced Mom."
I do believe, however, that the ceremonial awarding of participation trophies won’t necessarily lead to an inflated sense of self-esteem or a generation of entitled twerps, a concern that has been causing teeth-gnashing since I worked the concession stand back in the day. On the other hand, my actions, my words and the way I lead my life have much, much, much more influence than a shelf full of cheap hardware.
And it’s not like we’re pulling a fast one on kids anyway. After spending most of my adult life as a sports parent, I can state unequivocally that children, even those who can’t tie the shoelaces on their cleats, know the score well enough. They know who’s good at something and who is really, really superb. And yes, they know who stinks, too. No number of trophies can change that.
Part of growing up and growing strong is making peace with such self-assessments. Yet over the years I’ve also learned that the prodigies and the wunderkinds sometimes don’t make it to the end or to the top. The dedicated, the disciplined and the diligent, the nose-to-the-grindstone stiffs do — through the dint of hard work and inexorable drive.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.