Why Not Everyone Should Get a Trophy

The day was finally here. It was time to see if I would be rewarded for my hard work. There were eight events, five points a piece, 40 total points, and 1 goal, a perfect score. This was the challenge I had given myself as a 3rd Grade kid leading up to “Physical Skills Day” many years ago. Six challenges into the competition and I was a perfect 6-for-6. The Hoola-Hoop, Paddle Ball, Standing Broad Jump, “Marathon”, Softball Throw (Distance), and Sit-and-Reach Test were no match for my physical prowess. The time came to face my two most difficult events: Softball Throw (Accuracy) and Soccer Ball Kick. I had known going into the day that these would be the most difficult for me, so I had been practicing for weeks at home. I stepped up to the dirt mound and fired in the first pitch towards the backstop. *Thud* Right on the cardboard target. Justin Verlander couldn’t have done it better as I followed it up with four more beauties. It was time for the Soccer Kick. I lined it up and nervously gave the ball a whack: Doink! Off of the right “4 point cone” and in between the “3 point cones”. You got two kicks so I had one more chance to salvage the event. Right. Down. Broadway. I had earned the Purple Ribbon, which was only awarded to students with 39-40 points. It was a higher honor even than the blue ribbon and it was all mine.

All About Incentives

Call it what you will, incentives are what get people to work harder

What would have happened in 3rd Grade if everyone got a purple ribbon for participating in Physical Skills day? My incentive for practicing would be nonexistent, so I would not have worked on my baseball throwing or soccer ball kicking. I would have scored somewhere in the 30s and probably have been ok with that because it didn’t really matter. I would have gotten in the car and told my mom they gave everyone purple ribbons today and she would tell me that she was proud of me. None of these things are bad or false. My score was fine, I had been given a purple ribbon and my mom really was proud of me. But it would have been cheapened for me because everyone got one. Even as an 8-year old, I realized that I wouldn’t really have “earned” anything by getting the ribbon. Instead, I was able to get in the car and tell my mom that I had earned my award, and that only a few other kids had also gotten purple ribbons. You might argue that I could have gotten the exact same score in the fictitious scenario, and that I would be equally happy knowing that I got the best score. I know this isn’t true, because I lived it out. The following year as a 4th grader, I came into the Physical Skills day without any practice or incentive because I assumed that I could easily follow my prior performance with another perfect score. After all, I’m a year older now and I can’t get worse. I got a 38 and lost one point at both the Softball Accuracy Throw and the Soccer Kick. My incentive was gone and my performance suffered.

Generation Y Problem

It’s no secret that Generation Y has a huge problem with entitlement. We assume that people will always be willing to give us whatever we want, whenever we want it. How did we learn this behavior? Trophies. Awards. Prizes. Everyone gets a participation trophy or some made up award to make them feel special. Even the girl that didn’t score a point all year gets the “Most Encouraging” Award and a rousing applause at the team pizza party. Fast forward 15 years and Sally is working for her first legitimate employer. She turns in lousy work and expects to be rewarded for her half-hearted efforts. Much to her chagrin, she is fired on the spot! How could this be? No one has ever told her that she isn’t special, perfect, and a beautiful, unique little snowflake! Now she is going to get her Daddy, who happens to be a lawyer, involved to she can sue him for discrimination of some kind or even harassment if he’s particularly deceitful.  Obviously this is an over-dramatized example, but it isn’t too far from the truth. Generation Y expects to have things handed to them and cries when it doesn’t work out that way.

“Yellow Ribbons”

I know what almost all of you are thinking right now. Taylor, how could you be heartless? *Cue Kayne* You might say things like…

“It’s not fair to differentiate between the kids that performed well and those who did not.”

“The kids might go home crying and end up with self-esteem issues.”

“Everyone knows that the yellow ribbons are the least valuable at Physical Skills Day. It would be so embarrassing to have to carry that around all day long and be forced to tell their parents and classmates about it.”

Hear me out when I say this: I don’t think that we should stop trying to build kids up. I understand that the psyche of an 8-year old should be treated differently than an 18-year old. They are fragile and need to be nurtured to a certain extent. That doesn’t mean that we should always reward average or negative performance or behavior. It discourages everyone from trying to get better.  When your little girl brings home his drawing that looks like a spilled paint can, feel free to put it on the refrigerator and tell her you’re proud of them and that you love it. But don’t tell them that they are a gifted artist and have a real future ahead of them if they put their mind to it.  When your son strikes out for the umpteenth straight time, tell them that they’ll get’em next time and that you love them. But don’t tell them that they are a great baseball player with the ability to play in the pros one day. They will believe you and eventually someone will crush their dreams. Is it worth marginally boosting their self-esteem to then have them be embarrassed later in life? That seems slightly shortsighted to me…

Time to Change

Generation Y is largely the way that it is because we were raised this way. We didn’t ask the school or team to give awards to everyone, our parents did. I’m not deflecting all blame here, but it’s hard to get kids to make their own important life decisions. After all, a five year-old will choose having ice cream for dinner EVERY night if given the option. Clearly, we have  been raised to be spoiled brats, but it isn’t too late to save face. Generation Y couples are starting to have kids of their own. Some have probably even experienced a few of the things mentioned in this article with their own kids. Our generation may have been expectant and lacked work ethic, but that doesn’t mean our kids have to be. The Traditionalist Generation was rigid and rarely strayed from the norm due to the fear of “stepping outside the lines”, but the Baby Boomer Generation brought a fresh outlook on life. The Baby Boomer generation consisted of workaholics and Generation X responded by de-prioritizing work and focusing on more important things in life.  What will Generation Y’s positive change be? Could it be changing the attitude of entitlement for the next generation and re-instilling a solid work ethic? We can only hope so. Until then, pass me my participation award. I’ve earned it.