Why ‘Participation Trophies’ Matter: Everyone Needs To Feel Validated

Without recognition for the daily effort we’re putting in, what kind of reward can most of us look forward to?

My daughter is practicing her somersaults. She doesn’t quite have it down yet: she crouches, tucks her head, then rolls onto her side and giggles. “You’re working hard on that,” I observe. “I’m proud of you.”

Later, when she counts all six of the toys in her backpack, I remind myself of the agreement my partner and I have made: Praise actions, not attributes. I want to tell her she’s smart – like all parents, I’m halfway convinced my child is a prodigy – but instead I say, “You’ve been practicing your counting so much! Good job!”

Whether she’s flailing or leapfrogging over her developmental milestones, my response is the same: I congratulate her for the effort she’s putting in, not the results.

Today my kid has been driving me crazy. She’s been throwing things, hitting, ignoring every damn thing I tell her, and having meltdowns when I try to redirect her. Nothing on my work-from-home to-do list – laundry, yard work, this essay – has gotten done. But we’re both trying our hardest: her to negotiate her existence as an independent person in the world, and me to survive the process without losing my voice from shouting. Remembering that lets me feel compassion for us both, rather than (OK, in addition to) frustration with everything I didn’t accomplish today. I’m proud of us.

As a Millennial parent, I know my generation is often caricatured as being so spoiled by “participation trophies” and “points for effort” that we expect praise to be heaped upon everything we do, including our failures; that our persistence and resilience are atrophied by years of blanket encouragement. We’re too entitled – so goes the narrative. And now we’re raising children who will be just like us, unconscionably convinced of their worthiness.

It’s true that I received lots of praise as a child, mostly for things that came very easily. I read stacks of books, won spelling bees without studying, aced every standardized test. I was described as “smart,” “gifted.” Everything was easy for me until it wasn’t. I got bored in class and read books under the table instead of doing the work, and my grades plummeted. When I started taking gymnastics, I learned fast, skipping levels and mastering moves with ease until suddenly I hit a wall and stopped improving. Instead of buckling down and working harder, I quit the team. All the years of participation trophies on my shelf didn’t trick me into believing I was great, and what was the point of doing anything if I wasn’t great at it?

I am intensely motivated by external recognition. I want desperately to be told I am doing a good job, which is kind of inconvenient as a stay-at-home parent and freelance writer. With praise and rewards in short supply, I spend a lot of time wondering if anything I’m doing matters.

I don’t think anyone from my generation expects a blue ribbon just for showing up, as much as we’re often described that way. We know the difference between a participation trophy and a real one. The problem is that real success – material security, stability, the kinds of things a person needs to survive – is a prize increasingly out of reach. The gig economy makes promotions and raises a fairy tale. Housing is bonkers expensive and difficult to find. The cost of a college degree is ballooning exponentially faster than we can save for our children’s education. Most of us have no shot at retiring.

It’s hard is what I’m saying. Being an adult in a crumbling economy, with social safety nets being dismantled all over, trying to raise children while knowing they’re likely to face even more stringent versions of the same challenges, is exhausting. There’s no finish line in sight. Without recognition for the daily effort we’re putting in, what kind of reward can most of us look forward to?

Being validated and appreciated is a human need. The belief that we don’t deserve that until we reach a marker of success that’s elusive – or illusory – damages our belief in ourselves and our relationships with others. It’s a mark of the dehumanization of late capitalism.

Do you know how much it means to have someone look you in the eye and say “I know how hard you’re working, and I appreciate you”? The truth is that life isn’t just hopping from one achievement to the next. Most of our lives are spent in the quiet hard times in between. It’s paperwork and laundry and commuting and doing yesterday’s work over again. We have to be able to value ourselves and each other for the people we are in those times, not just in our best moments.

So maybe I am an entitled Millennial raising an entitled kid, and maybe that’s not an insult. I believe there is an inherent dignity to being human, and that all of us, just for being born, deserve some food and shelter and warmth and a little bit of joy. I believe you shouldn’t have to be extraordinary to survive. We’ve had enough stories about underdogs who beat the odds. The odds shouldn’t be stacked against us to begin with. I want to raise a child who believes she is worthy for who she is, not what she can do – and that everyone around her is too.

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).

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