Thoughtful Parenting: Why kids should not get rewards for participation


From the time my son Charlie could walk, nothing has captured his attention more than a big, shiny trophy. When Charlie was 4, my coed soccer team won the championship and we received the trophy. The captain of our team, Mark Dudley, let Charlie hold it, and he beamed. Charlie than turned to me and asked, "Can I sleep with this tonight?"

Thoughtful Parenting

This weekly column about parenting issues is written by local early childhood experts. It publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

When I was young I also remember longing for a trophy. Something that would stand in the middle of my shelf and remind me of a time when I was "a champion!"

Nowadays, you walk into many kid bedrooms and their shelves are lined with trophies, medals, ribbons and rewards. Basically, if the parents write a check, the kid gets a trophy.

I worry about how this impacts our children's motivation to participate in the first place. Is it because they have a passion for sport? Do they feel it is internally rewarding to practice and improve? Are they learning to put in time and effort in order to perform their best in the big game? Or is it because they know, championship or not, they will get another shiny trophy to add to their collection?

This obsession with rewards is not the kids' fault, they certainly aren't the ones buying the medals and ribbons. What are we, the adults, teaching kids about the process that leads to success? Is it about the trophy for participating or is it about the hard work, persistence, grit and the teamwork it takes to achieve a goal?

It is a long road to the ultimate championship for most athletes. Olympians are not created overnight, black belts can't be purchased, and state championships are years in the making. If we want our kids (and more importantly, if our kids want) to achieve long-term success in their sport, they must find value in the process that leads to achievement, not just the ribbon, medal, or fruity snack that they receive as a reward for simply showing up.

My son, now four years removed from wanting to sleep with our championship trophy, trains with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. He had a ski race last Saturday, and guess what, no ribbon and no trophy, as he finished outside of the top five. The next day, I received an email, sent to the entire club, written by Deb Armstrong, the club's Alpine director and a former Olympic gold medalist. Deb clearly had heard complaints from parents about the shortage of ribbons:

"Some of you are solely focused on a result and let the end of the race be the culmination of the day. Yet race results are a tool for learning at this age and if you as a parent are not facilitating this learning at the end of a day then it's opportunity lost....Help your child earn pride from overcoming and learning and focusing and enduring. This is called self-esteem and a ribbon will never give a child self-esteem. Working for something and earning something instills esteem"

In my book, "Mindful Parenting," I explain the difference between an outcome-oriented (focused on the outcome of an event or assessment) and a process-oriented (focused on the process of the event) mindset — and how the way we praise our children can perpetuate each of these mindsets. Research demonstrates that children with a process-oriented mindset:

• are more persistent

• enjoy challenges more

• demonstrate fewer low-ability attributions

• and consistently outperform children with an outcome-oriented mindset

When our children head off to college, would we as parents rather see more ribbons on their walls or more traits like these in their character?

Dr. Kristen Race is the author of "Mindful Parenting," and founder of Mindful Life. As the parent of two young children, Dr. Race is quite familiar with the hectic lives of what she calls "generation stress." Through her work, Kristen fuses the science of the brain with simple mindfulness strategies for families, schools and business, all designed to create resiliency towards stress. Her work has been feature in The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and she is a regular blogger for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.


David Carrick 3 years, 2 months ago

Amen, amen, and AMEN! Thank you, Dr. Race, for advancing this much needed message!


john bailey 3 years, 2 months ago

kudos to Deb, there is value in hard work , and not just showing up.


Carrie Requist 3 years, 2 months ago

Nice article and kudos to Deb. We have always said to our kids that how you do (in sports, on a test, etc) is under your control, but where you place is a function of everyone else (who else is entered, how they do, etc).


kris sharp 3 years, 2 months ago

Thank you to Deb and Dr. Race for sharing the email. Very refreshing. Bravo.


Brian Kotowski 3 years, 2 months ago

Nicely stated, but I fear the good doctor may be leaning into the wind. Academia, both primary and secondary, are lefty fortresses where "self esteem" trumps reality and common sense. Too many of those sensibilities have invaded youth athletics. Friends of mine received a scathing email this summer after removing their 9 yr old from a soccer league after learning of its prohibition against keeping score. God forbid kids should ever be prepared for the possibility of failure.

It's For The Children ®.


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