Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison caused quite a kerfuffle in the parenting world this week when he said that the “participation trophies” his young sons had been given in their sports league were pointless and gave them back to the organization. ESPN has a good story on it, as does USA Today.
“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,” Harrison said in a post on Instagram. “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.”
Now it turns out that I’ve written about the stupidity of participation trophies before. Go read Kids Have to Lose Occasionally Too to learn my thoughts on this subject. In that article, I said “Life is about learning how to accept and get back up and into the thick of things after disappointment, not just shield our children from every bad thing that could befall them.”
And here we are again, with a father saying that a participation trophy is meaningless because it’s not something you earn other than perhaps by simply showing up, and “experts” from all sides are berating him as being too mean, too hard, too unsympathetic, too competitive, too… masculine.
Harrison’s not a nice fellow on or off the field, apparently, and has a history of violence. That’s unfortunate, because in this situation he’s right. But here’s the thing: it’s the league that’s in the wrong here, not the parent. He’s trying to clean up a mess that our over-nurturing, over-protective culture has created because instead of creating a situation where the boys fight, strive, and work towards being the best in their little sports league, everyone’s been given the same “trophy”. And a trophy awarded because your parents signed you up and paid the fee is a trophy that has no symbolic meaning, no significance.
And that can’t be something that’s going to help the young Harrison boys grow up into young men who can deal with — and succeed within — a world that has successes and failures. As I tell my children all the time, and demonstrate in my own personal life, it’s all about getting up after you fall down, not trying to avoid ever falling down at all.
Let’s be frank about it, life is defined just as much by failure, by disappointment, by sadness, by situations that suck, as it is by success, by joy and by wonderful things. Happiness comes from being able to endure the bad while focusing on and celebrating the good.
It’s like parenting. You can’t be a good parent without arguing with your children and even getting into fights with them. That’s just how it is. If everything is 100% harmony then you’ve raised a sycophant or you’ve become a complete pushover and are being manipulated 24×7 without even realizing it. And those arguments are just fine, it’s part of our children learning to speak up for themselves, have their own viewpoints, strive towards their personal goals and, eventually, become their own person and succeed in life.
So kudos to you, Mr. Harrison, for standing up to the politically correct dumbing-down of our over-protective parenting culture. Now just make sure you remember that the other half of a parents job is to nurture and model healthy acceptance of those failures and challenges in life too…