Children are inexperienced, not stupid. So why do we treat them like they don’t have eyes or brains? When they see a table full of trophies at an awards ceremony for their little league team or spelling bee or whatever else, they will notice that there is one big one, one a little smaller, one a little smaller than that, and as many tiny ones as there are kids left. A kid who is too young to make the connection may be happy with anything, but almost no kid over eight wants the tiny one. These will, with few exceptions, be tossed in the garbage in short order because that’s what they are.
It’s not just a dumb idea, it’s harmful. Even if this idea works and all the kids are happy to get their little trophies, it is a disservice to the children to let this be an example for their lives. Some of the games we play are zero-sum. The only way we win is for someone else to lose. Pretending that sports competitions are non-zero-sum games won’t help that grown-up kid deal with their emotional reaction when they make a bad trade in the stock market or don’t get a second interview or any of the thousands of disappointments waiting for them in life.
Children need to fail. It’s critical to their development into functioning adults. We all fall short and we need to learn how to deal with it. Trying to protect them all from every emotional trauma only harms their emotional maturity. It would be better for the loss to cost them something rather than benefitting from failure.
At their worst, participation trophies are a misguided attempt by adults to protect themselves from having to deal with their children’s disappointment, and in the process, modeling behavior that perpetuates a cycle of inability to cope with others’ negative emotions.
Go ahead and give the little ones a shiny medal to wear. It’s just a toy to them anyway. But once they understand that there are winners and losers, an award for losing is worse than useless.