How many trophies and medals does your child have?
I’m not asking because I want to tell you about all the medals and trophies my grandkid has, but to make the point that maybe our children have more awards than they need. Maybe the notion that every accomplishment needs a trinket is wrong-headed. Maybe it does more harm than good.
That’s the point made by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. According to Bronson and Merryman, the giving of awards doesn’t motivate either the winners or the losers. Instead, awards actually reduce motivation to do well.
This is a well-known fact of motivation psychology: that extrinsic rewards lessen people’s desire to achieve and even to participate. “Extrinsic” rewards are those given to you by someone else who has judged your efforts and found them good. This destroys any pleasure of doing something just for the fun of it. It also destroys any self-assessment or impulse to fine-tune one’s efforts. Extrinsic rewards have the effect of discouraging kids who don’t win them and also of discouraging the kids who do. Nobody wants to be manipulated.
The practice of awarding trophies and medals can have the effect of cheapening an activity, so that its whole point is to get the award at the end. According to Bronson and Merryman, as well as other researchers, even children as young as 4 or 5 are not fooled by trophies.
Stop and consider:
- Has the awarding of trophies and medals become meaningless, because everyone gets one? In that case, you and your child are simply enabling the cluttering of your home and the wasting of whatever money and natural resources went into an award’s manufacture and purchase. It’s not easy to throw away trophies once they’ve made their way into your child’s bedroom!
- Or, has the awarding of trophies caused your child to feel badly about herself because she did not get one? Has it caused your child or another child to tease others because she got a trophy and others did not? If everyone-getting-a-trophy is meaningless, then only-the-best-getting-a-trophy is shattering. It has no place in instructional leagues and park district programs.
- And, has the awarding of trophies caused you to be more interested in your child’s team winning than is healthy? The purpose of games and sports, especially for young kids, is to have fun, to learn some physical skills, to learn to follow directions and rules, and to work together with a team. The purpose isn’t to win. The purpose isn’t to be the best. If being the best matters to you, then perhaps you should sign up for a league yourself. Let your kids have their fun and you have yours.
So, what can you do? Merryman suggests that you actually find another program or sport where trophies and medals are absent. She says, “I take it seriously enough to say, ’find another team.’” But she’s also a realist. If you cannot do that or if the giving of awards is so common in your area that no such program exists, then suggest to the leaders than something less Olympian than a medal or trophy be given. Merryman proposes a patch to iron onto a kid’s gym bag. Another idea is to ask your child how long a trophy needs to stay around. The idea that a trophy is forever is one that isn’t all that sensible. Avoid helping your child to start a “trophy collection.”
Merryman says the downside of rewards isn’t worth the risk. “We’re teaching children that we only do things for rewards — that if you’re not trophy-worthy, it’s not worth doing. We’re telling them, we’re watching. We’re judging. And that’s the last thing a beginner wants to hear. We need to give kids time to just learn.”
We need to let kids be kids.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.