Just Show Up: The curse of the participation medal

Just Show Up: The Curse of the Participation Award

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By Angela Bergman

I love the idea of celebrating each child’s best. That’s our job as parents—to acknowledge and give the proverbial pat on the back when our kids give it all they’ve got. Home is a safe place for everyone. Home is where everyone is loved and praised. Or at least that’s what it should be.

But things have gotten out of control. Schools and sports organizations have taken it upon themselves to hand out accolades to everyone who participates. There is no more first, second, and third place. We’re all winners, as long as our body shows up and goes through the motions. Kids hardly even have to try and they’ll be rewarded.

Just Show Up

I attended the Meet-the-Teacher event at my son’s new high school in fall. We went to each classroom, re-creating a mini “day in the life” of our student, and heard each of their teachers describe their plan for the semester. One teacher informed us that our child would pass if they just showed up to class. All they had to do was the bare minimum and they would move onto the next grade level.

What? I know this happens in elementary school but now it’s moved into our high schools! The “Just Show Up” award system.

Just showing up isn’t enough. When you go to University or College, you’re not going to get your degree if you just show up. When you get hired for a job, you’re not going to get very far if you just show up. If you get married or are in a long term committed relationship, your relationship is going to suffer if you just show up. When you become a parent, your kids are going to run your house if you just show up.

No Free Passes

When I was a kid, my elementary school held firmly to the pass/fail system. I had to work hard to get my grades. There were no handouts. We saw one or two kids fail each year and we accepted kids one year older than us into our fold when they couldn’t make the grade. There were no free passes in my school.

And when I entered the competitive world of piano competitions, I learned that just because I was a pretty good piano player, I didn’t necessarily win. In fact, I entered many competitions before I finally won my first trophy. And I never won another piano trophy after that.

That win—my one win—was huge to me. I’ll always remember the shock and surprise when the adjudicator called my name and congratulated me. I’ll never forget the trophy that sat on top of my piano and inspired me for one full year before I had to give it back and it was awarded to the next deserving recipient.

I was still a good piano player even though I didn’t have a trophy sitting on my piano. I didn’t question my ability. I still did the best I could. I diligently practiced five or six days a week even after I was no longer considered a winner. I didn’t need a trophy to tell me that I was good enough.

Kids Today

My oldest two boys have at least one medal for each year they played soccer. They also received medals for every tournament they played in—not tournaments where they came in first place, tournaments they participated in. They showed up to the tournament and they automatically got a medal. Where are those medals? Not proudly displayed somewhere to remind them of their soccer accomplishments. They’re somewhere in our house, but they don’t mean anything to my boys.

This way of thinking in participation awards is not helping our children as much as we think it is. The generation we are raising is the most selfish and self-entitled group of kids I’ve ever seen, and in hindsight, I thought I was a pain in the butt. Our kids now expect us to do everything for them. Everything falls into their laps because they just need to show up. This may be the case in school and in their extracurricular activities but this should only be the case at home.  

Part of the problem is when kids do achieve a higher level than their peers, they don’t receive the proper acknowledgment. When everyone gets a medal or a pass, the “just show up” attitude is perpetuated. First place no longer matters, and it shouldn’t, but why are we afraid to make a distinction between You-Did-Your-Best-And-You-Won (or You-Got-The-Highest-Mark) and You-Showed-Up-Therefore-You-Passed?

My high school student watches as some of his peers show up, do the bare minimum and pass while he works hard, gets top marks, but no acknowledgement. How long before he figures out that he doesn’t have to try?

Home is Where Everyone Wins

Home should be the only place where everyone gets a free pass. Because that’s where it really matters. Even though I like to, I don’t need to win at work or at the gym in order to be loved. My family is what really matters to me. I may not always be my best at home—we all have bad days and it always comes out at home—but I know I am loved and accepted in the four walls that keep me and my family warm and dry.

Some days, all we can do is just show up. And that’s okay. But if you want to be better than sub-par, it’s time to stop aiming for the participation medal and instead, aim to do your best.

Teach your children that showing up is not enough. Let them know that they should always strive to do their best, even if no one acknowledges their above-average effort. They may not make it to first place—because first place is a rare thing for our children these days—but they will begin to build in themselves a sense of pride that will help them in years to come.

About the Author

Angela Bergman

Angela is a work at home mom who manages the well-being of her five children, ages 8 through 15. She's been married for 18 years to a small business owner who has owned a sports card shop for four years. In her spare time, she fosters puppies for a local animal rescue, walks her own two dogs, writes fiction, and offers fitness consultations to women who are pregnant and postpartum, and anyone who wants to work out at home.

Featured Image by Markus Spiske via Unsplash.com

Content Image by Julius Volz via Flickr under Creative Commons License

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