How “Trophy Culture” Does Long-Term Damage to Our Children
It isn’t exactly breaking news, but we now live in a world where “trophy culture” has become increasingly prevalent. If you do not already know, trophy culture is the general idea that there are no real winners and losers. Instead, all participants in some game or activity get a trophy. Rather than looking at the hard facts and distinguishing people based on results, we prioritize the feelings of the group over the individual.
The motivations behind trophy culture appear to be sincere. Parents, teachers, and coaches want to minimize stress and hard feelings in children’s lives. Essentially, they don’t want to ruffle any feathers. By giving a trophy to everyone, conflict is avoided, feelings aren’t hurt, and everyone gets the satisfaction of walking away with some recognition of their hard work.
While the motives may be pure, the collateral damage cannot be avoided. To put it simply, trophy culture leads to children of all ages foregoing opportunities to learn certain life skills. But even beyond these important life skills, trophy culture stunts children’s social and emotional development, which can eventually result in depression or anxiety.
I’m not the first person to argue that trophy culture is damaging to our children’s future. Nevertheless, I believe it is an important message to echo—especially as we enter the new decade. By resisting trophy culture and having our children experience some adversity in their lives, we invest in their future happiness and success.
Ultimately, while there may be some short-term pain, there is a significant long-term gain.
Resisting Trophy Culture
Being an educator for about 25 years, I have seen the growing momentum for trophy culture. It didn’t occur at a singular point in time. Rather, there has been this steady transition to a society where children simply aren’t allowed to fail. Instead of using failure as a teaching lesson, we forego the opportunity entirely. We prioritize the short-term satisfaction of avoiding conflict and stress and actually make it more stressful and anxiety-ridden for the child as they get older. In other words, we are deferring and intensifying the child’s pain as they age.
So what are some of those traits, skills, and lessons that kids are foregoing in widespread trophy culture?
Arguably the most important (and obvious) is grit. According to Angela Duckworth, the author of the extremely popular book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, grit essentially involves passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. I’m sure you know of at least one gritty person in your life. She is passionate about a particular goal that she has, and she will continue pursuing it, even if she faces obstacles or failures along the way.
Initially, it can be easy to think that trophy culture helps children become gritty. After all, we are removing the success and failure equation of kids’ journeys. If they are not encountering rewards or recognition along the way, perhaps they will continue following their passions and subconsciously become gritty.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. The real world is tough. Failure is common. If children who have grown up in trophy culture aren’t used to failure, they may find it extremely demoralizing and discouraging. In other words, they aren’t gritty. They don’t work through the obstacles that they will inevitably encounter in their lives. Regardless of their goals, these children are much more likely to buckle during those stressful moments. They are brittle and fragile rather than strong and anti-fragile.
Along with this, through trophy culture, children become entitled. They adopt an attitude that is full of hubris and overconfidence. After all, they are getting rewarded for everything they do—regardless of the results. Why shouldn’t they feel entitled in everything they do?
The harsh truth is that not every child is special. If that was true, special would lose its meaning. Sure, all of our children have certain strengths and weaknesses. But to act like our children are infallible and God’s greatest gift to Earth is, once again, setting our children up for failure. They will be rudely awakened when they are rejected from their first-choice college or criticized at their first job.
What is essentially happening is that the child’s world is being shattered. After never experiencing failure and being told that they are the top one percent of the one percent, their identity is conflicting with the facts. This sudden splash of cold water can lead to serious trauma—not only in the moment, but as the child ages.
Finally, trophy culture harms children because it curbs their ambition. Why would they be ambitious when everything is handed to them? Even if they fail, they are still being rewarded. It becomes much more difficult for the child to even get the motivation to go after something slightly daunting. Instead of developing that grit and undergoing stress, the child is more passive, waiting for the ultimate reward to be handed to him/her.
Hindering a child’s ambition—especially as he or she approaches their teenage years—can create lifelong consequences. Even if the child is truly talented or gifted, being coddled and rewarded in early development will stunt their ambition. A life full of potential may be exchanged for a life where the child lacks self-help skills.
Will Trophy Culture Persist?
To be clear, I’m not trying to take a fire and brimstone approach to parenting in 2020. As I said, I believe that the motives behind trophy culture are pure. But that said, the long-lasting effects of trophy culture are a net negative. They hinder children’s coping skills, social and emotional development, and grit. Longer lasting harms—like depression and anxiety—are also a possibility.
I don’t have an immediate solution to curb trophy culture. It is going to take all of us to evaluate whether we want to accept the inherent trade-offs of trophy culture. However, by closely analyzing trophy culture and having an honest discussion about its effects, we as a society will make a more informed decision going forward.