Participation trophies are creating a weaker generation

The importance of failure in student life and success

Ashuthi Kanneganti.
Ashuthi Kanneganti.

Participation trophies are an attempt to increase the self-esteem of children—a goal we can all admire and support. However, intent doesn't compensate for consequences.

The issue with participation trophies is they promote a disheartening concept: that failure is something to be ashamed of.

Instead of motivating young people’s self-confidence, these trophies encourage fear of failure and decreased motivation.

Participation trophies aren’t simply confined to little league baseball or recreational soccer. Their consequences seep into adulthood.

Individuals who support participation trophies may believe they place children on equal ground. Regardless of who wins, we’re all winners.

Others might be more pragmatic: winners reap the benefits of success; those who lose take it on the chin.

Both these extremes miss the signficance of facing a fear of failure.

With participation trophies, we spare children the embarrassment of losing. However, we are also ignoring the long-term ramifications that come along with pacifying initial distress.

Some think failure isn’t a learning opportunity because it’s an unfavourable outcome. They’re wrong. Failure can shed light on our shortcomings, and making mistakes is necessary for personal growth.

Allowing children to avoid disappointment through meritless accolades means they aren’t equipped to embrace and handle failure.

This is made apparent once children grow older and begin university.  

An unfortunate number of university students suffer from mental illnesses often associated with academia, such as anxiety and depression. Though certainly not the sole contributing factor to mental illness on campus, a sudden exposure to highly competitive and challenging environments exacerbates these conditions.

While trying to find the perfect balance of time spent between academics, rest and a social life, those unequipped to accept challenges and changes—like a busy schedule—lose motivation, and experience real failure for the first time.

Some students may worry they’re not cut out for university. When they get a poor grade on their very first midterm, they fall apart. And this in large part stems from our being coddled throughout childhood—we’re taught through meaningless awards that we’re special.

The very core of an award isn’t the glossy finish, or its flawless golden lettering. It's grit and ambition used to reach that point of accomplishment.

The majority of the happiness we get from receiving an award derives from the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies hard work paying off.

Giving everyone a pat on the back regardless of achievement is counterintuitive. We should be awarded for what we deserve.

Children are led to have high expectations for their future, but are unwilling to endure the trials which stand in their way of success. In the mind of a six-year-old, getting trophies for less work sounds like a brilliant plan.

In university, the participation trophy makes for a potentially lacking post-secondary student. The absence of motivation, coupled with a fear of failure, can result in students choosing less challenging programs over work they have more passion for.

In the workforce, there aren't any participation trophies. There is a standard of quality and a question of whether you can meet it. If you can’t, there’s no award—you won’t be filled with parental confidence. You’ll be fired.

Failure can be incredibly discomforting in the moment. It’s challenging, but if children aren’t permitted to experience it, far more dire consequences can occur.

The participation trophy mentality promotes a long-term fear of failure, and someone who’s afraid to fail can’t truly thrive—they lack both good and bad experiences.

It can be a hard pill to swallow, and may be accompanied by feelings of sadness or disappointment. But people shouldn’t be afraid of it. They should be encouraged to freely express their negative emotions.

We need a healthy medium where failure is viewed as a constructive learning opportunity. And those who do experience shortcomings should have their emotions validated.

Praising one’s effort is the key to creating a mentally strong child. But when children are praised with empty accolades, they run the risk of never confronting the initially harsh reality of failure.

An award is not inherently valuable. It’s a symbol that promotes distinction, given to individuals who not only worked hard, but achieved excellence as a result.

We should provide commendation when it’s due, while also preserving the integrity of what an award truly is.

Misunderstanding this concept only serves to hinder the tenacity of today’s generation, and will continue to do so as long as we allow it. 

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