How many participation trophies and medals do you have displayed in your home or discarded somewhere in the mud room? We’ve got assorted skiing and soccer medals, hockey trophies and certificates of achievement galore, and now is perhaps a good time to say that of my four sports-playing children, only one has ever really won something, because only one is old enough to have ever really competed – and he has lost far more often than he has won.

Ashley Merryman, the co-author of the book “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing,” and author of a recent Opinion piece “Losing Is Good for You” says those participation awards are not doing anyone any good except their manufacturers. “The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve,” she writes.

By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

Given that we live in a world where participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, I asked Merryman to offer parents some practical advice on how to counter the automatic award mentality. What should a parent do if he or she knows a participation trophy lies ahead at the end of a season?

“I take it seriously enough to say, find another team,” she said. “If you can’t do that, now – the beginning of the season for many sports – now is the time to speak up. Parents complain, but they don’t really do anything. If you can find another league, tell this one why you’re leaving. If you can’t, suggest an alternative to the yearly medal.”

What kind of alternative? A patch for your soccer bag, Merryman suggested. A zipper pull with the team or league name on it. A soccer ball for younger children, as a reminder to keep having fun with the sport. “Honestly,” she said of 4-year-olds clutching plastic trophies, “if you have to give them something, don’t you think they’d rather have a teddy bear?”

It’s the youngest children who are most likely to be handed participation awards, Merryman said, and they’re exactly the children who shouldn’t receive them. “We’re teaching children that we only do things for rewards – that if you’re not trophy-worthy, it’s not worth doing. We’re telling them, we’re watching. We’re judging. And that’s the last thing a beginner wants to hear. We need to give kids time to just learn,” she said.

What if it’s too late to say anything – the end of the season rolls around, and your child appears, medal in hand, from the final session? What should a parent say to a child who just got an award for nothing more than showing up?

“Ask your child, ‘What do you think?’ And follow their lead,” Merryman said. “If your child says, well, I didn’t really do anything, you can ask them what they want to do with it. Some kids even want to give it back. If you’ve got a 3-year-old who’s thrilled, well, you can let it go – one participation trophy isn’t going to hurt anyone.”

But talk to the league next year, she advises, and seek out teams and activities where children have a chance to really learn, improve and evaluate their own progress. And if there are winners and losers and your child is disappointed, ask that same question, “What do you think?”

Give them a chance to consider what they could have done differently.

“Don’t underestimate the power of not getting anything,” Merryman said.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.