The "Participation Trophy" Myth


Fair warning, we are about to get controversial here:

— Eleanor Roosevelt (...or maybe it was me)

I should know. Because I have handed out first place and participation rewards for more than a decade. They know. Let me give you a little backstory, to back up my claim. 

As you may know, for ten years I directed productions for the local school system with my teacher mother. (Mrs B. has taught special education for 20+ years. Yep, she teaches kids left behind how to read. She also hand sews hundreds of costumes. I might be a little proud, if you can't tell.) 

Mrs. B noticed that the children were lingering after the last show. Often crying, unsure of what to do with themselves after so much hard work, time and energy is suddenly, just... done. So we decided to offer a sort of award ceremony. We created dozens of awards, from "Sweet disposition" (basically, Miss Congeniality,) "Best Dancer," "Best Projection," "Scene-Stealer," to the most coveted "Director's Choice Award." They were given out in a hierarchy, from essentially participation to first place. And while everyone got an award, no one was under the impression that they were all the same.

Nonetheless, EVERY year a parent would come to tell me that they think all children should not get awards, or in their words "Participation Trophies." (Often right in front of said child. Oh, and it was a piece of paper for pete's sake. Who has the budget for actual trophies?)  And every year I would describe the way their particular child earned their award, and it was up to them if they wanted to take it away. Of course, they never would. Because "Participation Trophies" are an abstract to describe what people see as an entitled generation.  I get it.  I'm also not stupid. 

But I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Maybe you, the drama teacher, can pass it on to the parents. Maybe, together we can all stop the entitlement we have put at the foot of "Participation Trophies." Do you want to know what makes children entitled in theatre? It's an idea as old as the American Dream, instilled way before the most improved award was even conceived... 

If you work hard enough, you will get what you want.
— All Parents Everywhere

No.  This is not true.    

 You can work hard and still never get the part you want. (It's not true in life, either. Read "part" as job, house, or promotion, right? Life lessons here, folks.)  In fact, it's a large part of my pre-audition pep talk. You can start in the chorus and eventually get the lead. You can also stay in the chorus your whole drama career. You can get the lead one year, and go back to the chorus the next.  There is no hard work + fairness equation to get you what you want. (Theatre isn't fair, by the way. Which is a large part of my philosophy, if you haven't read it.) 

So, if you want to give out awards, you give out awards. Don't be afraid of the "Participation Trophy" myth (and subsequent backlash.)  As long as you are rewarding real achievement, no matter how small, you are not going to give kids an unearned ego. 

If you adamantly believe in the terrible effects of the "Participation Trophy" and would like to tell me about it. I have a sheet of paper for you. It's called the "My Opinion is More Important than the Happiness of Children," Award. I am afraid to tell you that you won't be the only one receiving it though. I suppose that makes it less special, doesn't it? ... Ouch.


Okay, the was a little harsh, but I stand by it. And I did warn you, people.... controversial. 

Holly Beardsley