- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2015


For several summers during my childhood, my sister and I would leave Brooklyn and spend up to six weeks at Harmony Heart Camp in Jermyn, Pennsylvania. The counselors went by “Uncle John,” “Aunt Vickie,” etc., and were charged with instilling or reinforcing Christian values in the campers.

We tolerated the lessons and songs in exchange for the bucolic setting, enjoying the lake, woods, arts and crafts, gymnasium and corral. The latter was my absolute favorite. In spending so much time there, I was allowed to assist in grooming and saddling the ponies and conducting rides for fellow campers.

One year, we had a “rodeo” with competition in several events. I won multiple ribbons, which came in blue (first place), red (second place) and white (third place). The blues stand out in my memory and engendered the most pride, but the red and white ones were better than nothing.

Not that anything was wrong with nothing. That was the reward for finishers outside the top three, and they seemed fine with the arrangement.

Nowadays, I guess everyone would receive a ribbon, just one difference between life in the 1970s and modern times.

Recognition for participation is the norm; results are secondary. Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison isn’t a fan of that philosophy, as evidenced by the rant he posted over the weekend on his Instagram account.

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” Harrison wrote. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they earn a real trophy.

“I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best … ‘cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better … not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut [you] up and keep you happy.”

Maybe Harrison already felt that way. Or maybe he watched HBO’s “Real Sports” last month and caught a segment entitled “Trophy Nation.”

For an amazing, and dismaying, indication of our backward approach to youth achievement, in general, and youth sports, in particular, check out the episode. Unless you’re related to Scott Sletten or some other titan of trophies, you might be repulsed.

Sletten is CEO of JDS Industries, one of the biggest trophy wholesalers in the world. What started as a mom-and-pop operation in the ‘70s, when pretty much the only trophies were for first place, has grown into a company with more than $50 million in annual sales.

That’s all because there’s a proliferation of leagues where everyone who signs up gets a trophy — win, lose, draw or no-show.

“It’s certainly been good for my business,” Sletten said.

But it’s not very good for young, impressionable minds.

“This isn’t even a trophy for effort or trying,” San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge said on the program. “It’s a trophy for participation. It sets the bar pretty low. A trophy puts in the child’s head that whatever he or she did was good enough, even when it clearly wasn’t. That’s not how the real world works.”

Somewhere along the way, we went overboard with the whole self-esteem movement. Yes, it’s important that children have positive images of themselves, but not to the point where there’s no such thing as losing. Failing to win doesn’t make you a loser; it just means someone else was better than you at that time in that activity.

Such lessons build more character than handing out trophies en masse, a practice that actually damages young brains.

“The technical term is ‘partial-reinforcement extinction effect,’” Dr. C. Robert Cloninger said on “Real Sports.” “If you constantly reward a kid, you spoil them and don’t build a capacity for them to be resilient to frustration. We have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner in the United States.”

Harrison is sending back the trophies his 8- and 6-year-old sons brought home. They will have to be content with whatever memories they have of their experience. They don’t need a piece of painted plastic to remind them.

The main thing is to have fun and do your best. That’s reward enough in itself.
Save the tangible awards for those who excelled.

Now, excuse me while I look for my blue ribbons.

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