I’m a millennial. Not the young, Instagram-everything, use-Gofundme-to-pay-for-your-vacation kind. I’m the oldest possible millennial, the kind that listened to Hanson and learned to use a card catalog and died of dysentery on the Oregon Trail. There are a lot of criticisms against my generation, but one of the most persistent is that we’ve created an “everybody gets a trophy” culture that prioritizes self-esteem over all else.
The arguments against this culture are loud and varied. Trophy Communism: If everyone gets a trophy, why bother even trying to win? The John Wayne: We’re raising a generation of sissies who will never figure out that life is tough! The Freud: You’re just trying to keep them babies forever and never let them grow up and experience anything difficult. The Trump: Everybody’s too politically correct to deny the losers a trophy. You’re LOSERS, kids, LOSERS!
The attacks on what I’ll call Universal Trophyism are so virulent, I’m afraid to whisper my next words to the Internet:
I think everybody should get a trophy.
There. I said it. I totally support an ethos that rewards growth and effort over success, as both a teacher and a parent. And I signed my 4-year-old son up for T-ball this spring, our first organized sport. I’m pretty sure he’ll end up with a trophy, and I’m 100 percent certain it will not be for his athletic prowess. (Bless his heart, we’re hoping he’ll show some musical talent. His catching style is what I like to call “Duck and Cover.”) Will he care whether he won or lost once he gets that trophy? Nope. All he’ll care about is using it to torment the dog or finding a way to incorporate it into a LEGO creation.
Believe me, kids care about winning.
If we’re worried that kids in Universal Trophyism won’t care about winning or won’t try their hardest, I invite you to referee a recess soccer game at any middle school. Bring your combat gear. This is Universal NonTrophyism—the game just stops at the end of recess and picks up again tomorrow, with no formal recognition for anyone—but the kids play like it’s the World Cup. Every day, someone bleeds. Every single day. The kids can reference games and goals scored from back in October. (And yet, somehow, they still can’t recognize a linking verb. Funny.) Believe me, they care about winning. That’s innate; it’s not something we have to worry they’ll miss in the curriculum of life.
A plastic trophy won’t undermine that.
And are we really that worried that our kids won’t find out that life isn’t perfect? I agree that a lot of us, including myself, work too hard to shield our kids from frustration and disappointment. But do we need to seek out opportunities for our kids to experience defeat? I promise, your kid will figure out that life is difficult. At some point during childhood, her best friend will move away, or his crush will like somebody else, or a mean teacher will take a dislike and make her life miserable. Or, hell, you’ll say he can’t have a cookie at the grocery store when he sees that other kids get them. Giving kids a plastic trophy will not undermine their natural understanding that life is both unfair and difficult, I promise.
As for those who argue that, unlike Universal Trophyism, real life doesn’t offer prizes for self-esteem, well, you’re just wrong. Every bit of research shows that kids who believe they’re smart will learn better. They won’t necessarily get a perfect score on their SATs and go on to work for NASA, but they will be more successful within the limits of their own ability than if they’re constantly reminded of their weaknesses. Those with a sense of their own worth are more willing to take positive risks. They’re more resilient in the face of setbacks. And people who present themselves with confidence are more likely to win life’s trophies—the awards, the promotions, the dates.
I’ll pause for a minute and check my own privilege. My kid is a white male with middle-class, college-educated parents. In a way, through no effort of his own, he’s already won. Our society is set up to cater to people like him. Honestly, even if he grows up to be a complete screw-up, he’s got a safety net that not everyone has. The world is legitimately a nicer and fairer place for him than for many others. But most of the people I hear bemoaning Universal Trophyism as the downfall of America have corporate jobs and $70 haircuts, so I think my point is still valid.
There is honor and trying and failing.
Giving a 10-year-old a trophy regardless of whether he wins or loses will not destroy the fabric of democracy. At best, it will send the message that there is honor in trying and failing, in stretching for a victory that’s beyond your reach. In reality, it’ll most likely be a booby prize for a kid who’s well aware that she lost and somebody else won. And if that kid is my son, it’ll be immediately incorporated into a game involving the trophy, six Star Wars action figures and a stuffed monkey. And that’s OK too.