Fight the trophy-industrial complex

Losing is good for kids, writes Ashley Merryman in a New York Times commentary. Nonstop praise is demoralizing.

Children praised for their talents “collapse at the first experience of difficulty, according to Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor.

In other research, children were asked to draw pictures. Those who heard praise of their artistic talent were “twice as fixated on mistakes they’d made in their pictures.”

Yet the “Trophy-Industrial Complex” is now a $3 billion industry in the U.S. and Canada, she writes. Youth soccer groups spend up to 12 percent of their budget on trophies.

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.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?

College students who’ve grown up receiving awards for “participation” think they can succeed by just showing up, says Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me. That doesn’t work well in college and is even less effective in the workplace.

Parents’ job is help children cope with frustration and defeat, not pretend they’re winners when they’re not, writes Merryman. She and Po Bronson are the authors of  Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing and NurtureShock.

In other words, you have to win a little, lose a little . . .

About Joanne


  1. I’d like to put in a plug for 4H. From third grade on, ribbons are based on the quality of a project. Every project also gets constructive criticism on how to do a better job next year. The whole program embraces the idea that there are people who are the ‘best’ at certain thing, and that the way to become the ‘best’ is to work hard, practice a lot, and learn from your mistakes.

    Also, you don’t need to have a farm to do 4H. Many of the projects are well suited to the city or suburbs! Last year, my third grader did genealogy, woodworking, a local history project, cake decorating, and photography. This year, she plans to complete 12 projects. The thrill of competition and the feedback from judges really promotes excellence!

  2. I think there is a balance with younger children. You want to encourage a very young child. I have nothing against having all trophies for a beginner division of something. Everyone knows the limited (first, second-place) trophies in the harder divisions mean more. In chess, my son is not allowed to play in the easier divisions, even if he wished to. Once you reach a certain level, you MUST play people your equal or better.

  3. I’ll put in a plug for the Civil Air Patrol. Cadets earn their rank by passing tests (leadership, physical fitness, drill) that get progressively harder. Even at the lowest level, many cadets fail the first time and must come back and try again. My 12 year old (who was very proud to earn his wings on his first attempt) commented that he thought it was a good thing that people fail. He pointed out that it made it more of an achievement, in contrast to his martial arts studio where after more than a year of classes, he has never seen someone try for a higher belt level and not have it granted, despite some pretty weak skills. Tough standards and a supportive environment are the key – without the support, kids get discouraged and quit. Without the high standards, kids don’t see the point.