Give the Kid a Medal

child's participation medal

The picture with this post is a medal my daughter was given this weekend. She and her father did a family triathalon, they swam 100 yards, biked 4 kilometers, and ran 1 kilometer. They did not win. In fact, my daughter got scared on the part of the bike ride that went down hill (down hill being a relative term since we live in Illinois) and got off her bike and walked it. But, they finished. She got a medal and to the disgust and shock of New York Times readers and Facebook parents everywhere, I think she deserves it.

Last week a New York Times article made the rounds of Facebook pages. The authors railed against the proliferation of participation medals and trophies children are given today. The author posits that this contributes to poor self-esteem and a poor work ethic. I should note that my childless cousin who posted the article was annoyed with me for using words like “posit” instead of recognizing that this article was based on “real research.” I see his point, because of course, research that deals with psychological outcomes is always easy to interpret with 100% accuracy. Both psychology and child development are clear cut that way!

I know that a focus group of my own two children is not research, but this article just did not ring true to me. My kids participate in organized sports and go to public schools so they have ribbons and medals and trophies coming out the wazzoo. Yet, they have no trouble distinguishing between “participation” awards and actual awards. The ribbons at school that you get if you walk or run or even show up, they go in the trash. The trophies that you get at the end of t-ball season for being on the team and the medals you get for hauling your ass out of bed at 7:30 in the morning to do a triathalon? Those they keep, because being on a team and putting in the effort really are worth something, even if you don’t make it to the championship or win the race. The award my daughter won at the end of last t-ball season for “sportsperson of the year”? You could have lit the night sky with her smile. She knew she had earned that and it was different than her participation trophy.

As I said, a group of two does not a psychological experiment make, but it isn’t just my kids. In my nice little suburb I don’t see any kids suffering from an abundance of praise.

What I do see are children staggering under the weight of parental and school expectations. I see an abundance of homework and after school activities creating insane schedules that parents complain about. But if it’s hard for us as parents to manage it how are these kids dealing with it?

On the playground before and after school I hear a lot of parents yelling and complaining and griping at their kids (me among them). I’m not hearing a lot of “Oh child dear you are the best.” There are days when I think all the kids I know deserve a medal just for making it through our joint parental insanity.

Not to mention the other children. Let’s not forget that there are kids for whom their birthday ribbon or participation ribbon is the only piece of praise that child will get all year. There are children who are neglected and abandoned and their ability to even show up is in fact medal-worthy.

I get it, there are better and worse ways to praise. Those of us in functioning families probably don’t have to try so hard to build our kids’ self-esteem. But it’s a well-established fact that as parents we will invariably screw up our kids. I’d just prefer to do it with too much praise instead of too little.

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