Please stop giving kids participation awards

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

I took the day off work recently to go along and cheer for my kids in their sports day. It was my favourite day of the year when I was little, and although none of my kids have inherited my passion for athletics, I still love going along to cheer them on doing their best.

If nothing else it's a relaxing day sitting in the sun and drinking coffee with other parents, and our kids learn the benefits of trying their best and being part of a team.

My eldest is in high school now, and is stridently opposed to any kind of sports, but my younger two, aged nine and seven, love having a crack at the 80-metre sprint.

Our school has never been big on the competitive side of things. A larger school, they have always run heat after heat, with no finals to find who is actually the fastest. But what they did do was award first, second and third ribbons to the place getters in each heat. 

My seven-year-old daughter – who refuses to compete in anything at home because she hates being dominated by her older brother – won a second-place ribbon in her race last year and nearly burst with pride. 

But this year, the already tame competition had been pared back even further. Not only were there no finals after many heats, but nobody was awarded a ribbon.

Instead, each child who finished was given a sticker that proudly stated, "I ran a race."

A race?

I looked up the definition of a race and found it's described as "a competition between runners, horses, vehicles, etc. to see which is the fastest in covering a set course."


Did we see who was the fastest? No, we did not. As soon as the children crossed the finish line they were all quickly ushered away with no recognition of who came in first. 

Perhaps the stickers instead should have read, "I went for a jog with my mates". 

Not everything in life needs to be a competition, but surely an athletics carnival is one of those things that, in essence, is exactly that.

Competitions like these give our children the opportunity to strive for something, to try as hard as they can and test themselves against their peers. 

They learn to win graciously, and to lose with dignity. 

They learn to be happy for others when it's their turn to shine.

They learn that sometimes things go your way, and sometimes they don't. 

They learn that life has its ups and downs, and that no matter what happens, the sun will still rise tomorrow.

What did my children learn by being given participation stickers after running a race that nobody was invested in? Nothing that I can ascertain, except that there's no need to try to excel because it doesn't make a difference, and that there's no such thing as losing.

This need so many of us have now to shield our children from the disappointment of not winning can only serve to raise entitled children who have no idea how to handle it when it comes along in their lives – and it will do for every single one of them.

The ability to bounce back after disappointment is one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids, and my local school is making that a difficult lesson to teach.