Participation certificates have been around for well over a century now. For years, nobody complained anything about them. But in the 00s, when Institutions, organisations, and events began to issue more participation certificates, it seemed strange to many.
With time, things went even further: giving trophies and medals for participation.
Many considered these rewards normal. They saw it as something to reduce participants’ agony of defeat or a reward for their hard work.
In contrast, many believed that these rewards created a sense of false entitlement in children and made them lazy. So they set out to expose the toxicity of participation reward culture and bring widespread public awareness.
From voicing their opinions through blogs, social media, radio, to speaking on television shows, they tried everything they could. Yet all these attempts proved useless. Not after James Harrison posted on Instagram in 2015 that he is returning his two sons’ participation certificates to the school.
The NFL star, who won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, wrote on instagram:
“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”
James’ post didn’t create the needed public awareness or convince supporters of participation reward culture otherwise. Yet, it certainly did one thing: it made more and more people talk about participation rewards, which led to many heated debates online.
Until last year, I never knew that people who dislike participation rewards do exist. To me, who neither supported nor was against participation culture, these online fights seemed pointless. I found no use in giving participation rewards or in not giving them.
Fast forward to a few weeks back, when I decided to write about this topic on my site many hard-hitting realisations struck me. Not only did I understand how detrimental this participation reward culture is to this current generation of kids, but also how it has corroded the minds of the millennials and Gen Zs around us. Above all, I was able to see clearly how, in one way or the another, many of the shortcomings in our adult life can be traced back to participation rewards
In this article, I’m going to break down how these participation certificates are making our adult lives difficult and why they should be banned everywhere. We will investigate how a simple participation certificate can lead people into drug addiction, mental illnesses and even suicide.
OK, enough of this tease. Let me explain how and why.
Some people refuse to tell their goals to others—not even to close friends or family. Usually, they think that doing so will suck the powers of the goals and make them impossible to achieve. Which is scientifically true though. But not in the exact way many people put it.
The underlying science is, when you reveal your goals to people, your mind tricks you into believing that you’ve already achieved your goals. It misinterprets your talking for the doing. This will leave you less motivated to do the hard work needed, since you have experienced the satisfaction of accomplishing your goals beforehand.
Now what happens with participation rewards is not very different from that. Your mind mistakes your participation award for an actual award, in the same way it mistakes the talking for the doing.
As a result, your mind records this effort—the effort that earned you the participation award—as the optimal effort needed to get along in competitions. From then on, that effort becomes your new standard of success in life.
And that’s exactly how most of our brains are wired to mediocrity from an early age.
The Pain of Failure
Many argue that participation reward helps children cope up with the pain and embarrassment of defeat. Yeah, that’s certainly true. But if children don’t feel the agony of defeat, how will they have the motivation to better themselves?
Giving participation reward, at best, only encourages children to stay average—as they won’t have the fire to push anymore. They will find no reason to improve themselves. They will look around and see their peers with participation rewards look as much happy as the winners, and thus convince themselves that there’s nothing wrong in sticking with the same.
But most importantly, they miss the opportunity to learn the most critical skill in life: ability to handle the pain of failure.
We all know what life’s like as we get older. Heartbreaks and failures are anything but avoidable. Whether it’s career, relationship, or whatever.
When kids grow up without knowing how much it sucks to fail and how to handle it, they’re going to mess up bigtime in future. They’ll spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how they should go about it. Ultimately this confusion would negatively reflect on other aspects of their life, and things just go down the rabbit hole, one after the other.
And that’s why, even if children listen to countless hours of lectures on overcoming failure, it will be far from useful. Rather, if they learn these lessons from practical experiences and circumstances, it stays with them forever.
By practical experiences, I mean anything as simple as asking your kid to save up for the bike he wants you to buy him immediately. Letting him prepare his own meal. (Or in the case of this article, no participation rewards when he loses). Encouraging him to work on the cookie selling plan he came up with, or anything that you think will teach him how to handle failure.
That’s definitely not easy for a child. But isn’t teaching him these lessons the kindest thing you could do to their future—than consoling with a dummy award just because it’s far easier to do?
If this participation reward trend were to continue, we will raise a generation of weak-hearted people, lacking the ability to handle even minor failures.
Needless to say, mental health problems surge to new heights.
And like the domino effect, all the other mishaps follow.
“When everyone gets a trophy, the only winner is the guy selling trophies” reads an anonymous YouTube comment.
Time to Show Up, Say Cheese!
You have probably heard of the Animal School Fable. It’s a story wherein a duck, rabbit, eagle, and squirrel would join a school. The school has its curriculum of running, climbing, swimming and flying. Because of their differences in strengths, all the students would find it grueling to excel in the overall curriculum.
The crux of the story is simple: value the diversity of strengths.
Pointing out the same, many people reason, “every child has his unique strengths and can’t excel at everything, therefore we should appreciate their spirit of participation.”
Without a doubt, that’s the best thing to do. As long as the appreciation is honest, simple words of encouragement, there’s nothing to worry about. It, however, only becomes a real concern when the idea of “just showing up is enough” is reinforced in children. Time and again (with participation awards and words).
More so that it soon becomes their ideology.
If children get used to the belief that showing up is more important than winning, imagine how it would alter their perception of success. In a world swarming with fierce competition, is it enough for people to merely show up? Nah, I don’t think so.
The real world doesn’t give you consolation prices for showing up. The real world doesn’t care if you tried your best or had the spirit to participate. All it cares about is the result.
When children are oblivious to these bitter truths as they grow up, they become entitled as adults. And sooner or later, wake up to a big reality check.
They will find it too painful to come to terms with reality. They can’t accept the fact that the memoir they wrote about themselves was turned down my publishers, let alone become #1 New York Times bestseller; or their first short-film which they thought would make its way into Oscars’ nominations that year struggles to garner 100 views totally.
Honestly, I’m not even exaggerating. I’ve personally met a few people as such.
To them, whenever they upload a video on YouTube or announce a business they’ve just started, everybody in the world should pause whatever they’re doing, and rush to listen to them. They assume that everybody is obliged to help them.
Where it gets even more complicated is when people carry all these traits into relationships. Expecting to be loved, taken care of, and prioritised, when they don’t reciprocate the same to the person they expect from.
In later stages of life, even if they try to get rid of this entitlement mindset, the possibility of a change will be almost zero. Much of this has to do with the gradual conditioning of their subconscious mind. Eventually, the fallacy becomes so entrenched in their mind that it would be too strong to be shaken off by any effort.
And adding to the friction of change is the time when all this reinforcement of beliefs happens in a person’s life, which is during adolescence. Period.
Going forward with this entitled mindset as grown-ups, they work on something for a while until they find out (which is always soon) it’s hard to make it big in a short time. Then, they just give up on that and hop on to the next, hoping to fortuitously excel in something.
This loop continues again and again.
Heard of Shiny Object Syndrome?
Well now you know, it’s not Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS); it’s actually EOS (Entitlement Object Syndrome).
The Praiseworthy Praise
Finding our unique talent isn’t as complicated as most of us think.
In the initial stages, you may suck at a lot of things. But with time, you will surely find it.
However, this journey towards discovering your talent is never a lonely ride. It also includes people around you. Your friends. Family. Teachers. Colleagues. Or random strangers. They play a big part in it, too.
While you might love to indulge in a particular craft/sport, it’s mostly through others you’ll know how you fare.
You tweak your work based on their response towards it.
You count on the feedback of others hoping they would be honest.
But what if they’re really not?
Wouldn’t that lead you astray to nowhereland?
Sadly, many do that to kids in the name of being kind, despite knowing it could have serious consequences on their future. And the result? Kids keep building upon the confidence in their rickety skills only to have it shattered by someone one day. Usually on a grand scale.
At this point, the pain one goes through for being laughed at by everyone is one thing. But the realization that everybody including their parents and close friends let them down by hiding the truth, is totally everything.
Whereas, if at least one person had given them honest feedback, it would’ve saved them many days of their life, and a nasty heartbreak.
By now, you might be wondering why the hell I swerved towards false praises when this article is all about participation awards. That’s indeed a valid question.
But the thing is, there’s only so much difference between participation awards and false praises. Except for the simple fact that the former is made of plastic and the latter is some random words vibrating in air.
When children are exposed to false praises, they find it tough to navigate the sport/art they truly love. They assume they’re somewhat good at or like doing something when it might not necessarily be the case. After receiving enough false praises, they reach a point where they falsely confirm they’re good at many things.
So much so that they won’t have the determination to zero in on one specific skill. Instead, they dabble across different fields and try to become jack of all trades. And guess what? They end up specializing in nothing. And in the end become nothing.
Talk about All-rounder Awards in schools and colleges.
Because of this, later when it’s finally time to choose a career path, they can’t help but be baffled.
Coddling parents and teachers have a hard time understanding this logic. They go on and on saying things to children that they don’t really mean. What they fail to understand is that hiding the truth only backfires on a child’s future.
So, if you feel that someone really sucks/needs to improve at something, the best bet is always to gently let them know. It’s as critical to be careful while praising someone as it is with giving negative feedback.
Oh Shit, the Matrix again?
On the surface, these accusations on participation awards and false praises might sound silly. But if you dig deeper, you’ll know they aren’t.
Not all the things in life are discernible with normal lens—and they don’t have to be. Some demand you to ultrazoom to understand the depth of things. And that’s how you break out of the matrix.
We blame the millennials and Genz’s for being entitled. We mock them as “participation trophy kids.” But isn’t it we who trained them to be that way?
I’m not trying to help them play the victim here, but just think: Why are they what they are now?
If we blame a particular community’s children for being entitled, that’s fine; or even if a whole state/country’s children are blamed for being entitled, that’s understandable too. But if an entire generation is blamed for being entitled, whose fault do you think that is?
Isn’t that blame on all of us collectively as a society?
Participation rewards and false praises are just the couple of things I have mentioned here. But there are many subtle things as such that can have an immense influence on children’s mind as they grow up.
The point I’m trying to make here is very simple: Avoid everything we can to raise children with weak hearts. And teach them things that would help them in the long run and help them lead a better life. A life where they could live up to their fullest potential.