Two years ago, my 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter ran a race. It was a big pre-marathon kids' fun run event. And out of more than 300 kids, my 5-year-old son won. He actually won the whole thing.
My daughter, the 3-year-old, came in about 300 spots behind him. And that afternoon, they both walked away with the same trophy—for participation.
And at the finish line, when they handed out ribbons, I thought, "Really? Here is my firstborn, pride-and-joy child, ecstatic over his big finish—and you give him some rinky-dink ribbon you give everyone else? Where is the mega-trophy with the word, 'Winner' on it? You're seriously going to let this kid go home with a 2-cent ribbon?"
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But I bit my tongue and placed both of their medals around their necks as we celebrated.
For months, my son relived that winning moment: The first few seconds when he turned the bend and came running toward the crowd as the leader of the pack; the kid who started gaining on him; the police escort guiding his path; the shock (and tears) on his mother's face when I realized he was actually winning—just like he said he would that morning—and the cheers from the crowd.
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And if you were to ask him about that moment, those are the details he'd tell you. The trophy—a two-inch wide medallion hanging from a red, white and blue ribbon—wouldn't even come up.
But you know who has the medal hanging on her wall? My daughter. She's not the athlete in our family. Or if she is, we just haven't figured out her sport yet. She's our witty, cheery, smart, creative child. But in an effort to get her some exercise, she gets pulled along to things, signed up for things, even bribed to participate in things—and nothing has really stuck. She'd rather be home, playing with her toys, helping us with projects or cheering for her brother. But at the end of the season, she's really, really proud of her participation trophies.
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So, for all the "high scorers" and MVPs out there, I applaud you. You should definitely be getting a bigger prize than those who just "showed up." But for the kids who get dragged along, encouraged to get off the sidelines and "exercise," who get cheers for actually making contact with the ball, I applaud you, too. Because you're the ones who need to be encouraged to keep trying next year. And it's just not as easy for you to show up.
So yes, keep giving out the participation trophies—at least in the Under 8 Leagues. And remember that they're hanging on the walls of kids who might never win the race, but are sure proud of themselves for finishing.
Katie Herrick Bugbee, senior managing editor at Care.com, focuses on global content for parents, caregivers, pet-owners, and families in need of senior care. As a mom of two small children, grandchild of an ailing grandfather and all-around pet lover, Katie relates to these topics and works diligently to provide the best advice and resources for Care.com readers.