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Student Opinion Column: Why Participation Awards are Detrimental

In today’s hypersensitive culture, it seems like everyone is offended about everything that happens. As if people are looking for reasons to be mad about something, or to say something was not fair.


Why does it seem we have become so soft?  So sensitive? So politically correct? There are many factors that contribute to this, but I believe one factor comes from childhood.  It is our culture’s obsession with handing out awards, even those that aren’t earned.


I have a real problem with so-called “participation” awards.  Advocates of giving every single child an award say the award will “help boost children’s self-esteem” or “encourage them to do better.” This may be true if the kid is in preschool or kindergarten, but that should be the end of it.  After that, participation awards are not only ridiculous, but detrimental.


At a young age these pointless awards could make a child happy because they don’t know any better, and they think that they can actually do something well, when in fact, they cannot. However, as children grow up, they need to learn that not everything is easy, and not everyone is a winner, and THAT IS OK! Life can actually be really difficult at times, and being the best at something is actually really hard.  


Not everything in life is just given to you. You actually have to go work for the job you want and the amount of success you desire in life. Participation awards do the opposite of what life does. Participation awards show kids as they are growing up that everything is easy and they can never fail at anything they do, even if they put forth far less effort than their peers.


Yes, there are some instances where participation awards are adequate. But let’s not call them participation awards, instead call them completion awards. If you complete a marathon, you deserve a completion award. Marathons are not easy, and completing them is a feat worth bragging about.


In all, I believe that our obsession with “good job” and “atta boy” has created a world of delusional adults. Once a person begins their adult life, they are expected to go out and try to conquer the world.  But many will fail, and will have no experience with failure to provide the type of resilience needed to bounce back from it. When people are young, they are hopeful, energetic, and persistent, but they are taught that it’s not ok to fail.   When people are adults and are not used to failure, they give up at the first sign of it, failing to realize that failure is just a steppingstone. Similarly, adults do not receive praise just for showing up to work each day. Even accomplishments in the real world often go unnoticed.  As a society, we need to still be sensitive and kind to our children, but we also need to teach them that not everyone will win every time. Instead of praising participation, we need to praise effort and resilience. Instead of reinforcing instant gratification, we need to teach children that the most important motivation is intrinsic, and involves no awards at all.


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