A retired psychologist lived down the street from a middle school (grades 6, 7, and 8 – the jungle years). One day, a group of three boys began to mess with his car, which was parked on the street in front of his house. He was, after all, an old man, and what better fun could three adolescents have than to pile leaves, sticks, rocks, and dirt on his car on their way to school.
In case you haven’t learned this lesson already, never mess with a psychologist! After the boys had continued for three straight days, he came out of the house and yelled, “Good job, kids. Come here. I’ve got a dollar for each of you.”
“Huh?” they wondered. “The old bird wants to pay us for messing up his car?”
For the next two weeks, the ritual repeated itself. The kids would come by every morning, toss whatever lawn debris was available onto the car, and then go and collect their dollar for a job well done. They guessed the old man was nuts, but figured what the hell, they were getting free money every day.
Then it happened. One day they trashed his car but he didn’t come out to give them the buck. They went to the front door, rang the bell, and asked, “Where’s our dollar? We dumped grass and leaves and dirt all over your car like always. Where’s our pay?”
“Times are tough for me, kids,” he replied. “I’ve got to cut back on my spending so I can’t pay you anymore. Sorry.”
“Well screw you,” one of them said. “You don’t pay, we’re not messin’ with your car anymore!”
Seems that the psychologist had turned something that was fun for them into a paying job, and when he withheld their pay, they quit the job!
Maybe the story wouldn’t end like that, but you get the point. If we try and get our kids to do things by giving them some sort of material reward like money, a lollipop, a gold star, a trophy, or whatever, does that type of reward stifle their interest in the task, so they just work to get the reward? Does the reward spoil the kids and mislead them about how life really works? Case in point: Participation Trophies. Should kids be given a trophy merely for participating in an activity regardless of effort or whether they win or lose?
Psychologists have researched this question: “When kids are having fun doing something and we come along and give them some material reward for doing so, are we going to destroy their fun?” The short answer is, “No,” but as always, things are not simple. Studies with children show that giving them a prize for something they enjoy doing tends to make them lose interest in the task once the prize is withdrawn. In other words, the prize seems to turn play into work.
Additional research shows, however, that we need to distinguish between rewarding kids for simply showing up versus rewarding them for improving their performance at something they already do. The bottom line is this: When we are rewarded for improving and doing something better than we did it before then the reward will not decrease our interest in the task. If given just for doing something, however, the reward tends to diminish interest in the task.
Imagine if there were only two grades in school: Pass and Fail. This arrangement could be compared to giving out a participation reward: Show up, behave, exhibit some basic preparation for tests, etc., and you get the Pass. This arrangement, of course, will not teach the student the value of an education, or the principle that your reward (grade) increases with your level of success.
We do not have to stop giving material rewards to their children for their actions. Things like sports trophies, gold stars in the classroom, and money for chores all have an important place in teaching young people about their world. But let’s not overdo it. No coach wants youngsters to compete solely to obtain the league championship trophy. There should also be an intrinsic enjoyment of, and respect for, the sport; there should be an appreciation of the importance of teamwork, fair play, and putting forth one’s best effort to do well. Children should be taught that winning is not everything; rather, it is the effort put forth to win that is everything. A participation trophy will teach none of these important lessons.
No matter what the activity, children should be taught about the two greatest imposters they will ever face: Success and Failure. Both are imposters because success will have them believe they are better than they are, and failure will have them believe they are worse than they are. Kids must be taught that success comes as the result of preparation and effort, and that failure gives them information about where they need to improve and change so they can experience success. An excessive emphasis on material rewards will not teach that success results from preparation and effort, or that failure results from lack of these qualities.
And remember: These points apply to all of us, not just to kids. Your biggest coping enemy is when you try to avoid failure, because then you will never learn to correct mistakes and improve.
One final point: Social praise is an effective supplement to material rewards. Praise from others can help maintain intrinsic interest in a task, and even prove to be an effective substitute for material rewards. Bill, a colleague, told us how one day his eight-year old daughter Anne received all A’s on her report card. “You know,” Anne told him, “Jen’s parents give her $20 for every “A” she gets.”
“Well,” Bill replied, “I’m not Jen’s dad. I can tell you, though, how proud your mother and I are of you. You do a great job at school; you study and work hard, and that shows us the kind of person you are. You know, Mom and I were talking last night that this weekend would be nice to take a trip to the zoo or maybe even go swimming at the lake. [Anne likes both of these activities.] You’ve been working so hard at school lately, and done such a good job, why don’t you choose the family outing this weekend.”
The great part of the story is that Anne received a valued intrinsic reward for her performance (choosing a family activity). Bill was also happy because Anne chose a family trip to the zoo and he had that $20 to put toward the entrance fee.

2 thoughts on “”

  1. Many hands have been wrung over “millennials and their participation trophies”, and far less attention has been paid to who is buying them and handing them out.
    Generational boundaries aren’t clearly defined, by some measures I’m an “old millennial”, born in November 1980. I don’t think I knew anyone who really treasured a participation trophy or took any sort of pride in it. Mostly they were just baubles given to mark the end of that sports season. If someone was insisting that everyone should have a trophy, it probably wasn’t the kids, my guess is that the parents who were paying for their child to participate were more concerned about their child having a shiny trophy to show for it than the children were.


  2. I think materialistic rewards only go so far. It may be a good incentive for children to try something that they normally wouldn’t voluntarily try to do. However, I believe giving praise is much more effective. It boosts the child’s self-esteem and allows them to find value and appreciation in the things they do. Using a personal example, my brother gave up trying to do well academically in school at an early age. He caught on that it made no difference whether he got straight A’s or not. Everything he did before that point was to please my parents who had the highest of expectations. When he brought home his report cards to show that he received straight A’s, my parents simply said, “Keep at it.” After some point, he felt no motivation to continue to do well. While I agree with B. F. Skinner as he explains the importance of how often you reinforce behavior, I think it’s also important to consider the quality of the reinforcement.


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