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Not everyone deserves a trophy

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Image courtesy of USA Today

Image courtesy of USA Today

By Ron Leone

In August, pro football player James Harrison made the news. Never one to shy away from making controversial comments, including stern criticism of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, (a trait he may share with many New England Patriots fans), Harrison went on social media to tell the world that his two sons received “participation trophies,” which “will be given back until they EARN [his emphasis] a real trophy.”

His declaration happens to coincide with a piece from HBO’s news series “Real Sports” entitled “Trophy Nation,” which opens with the reporter’s voiceover describing “…[A] seismic shift in American culture…that miraculously produces nothing but winners.” Adults reward every child with a trophy for participating, and in many cases for merely being on a team’s roster. Critics and scholars in the piece contend that rewarding 5- or 6-year-olds with a participation trophy may not be a bad thing, but when parents do it continually throughout a child’s adolescence—and in some leagues, young adulthood—they are doing more harm than good.

The report includes an interview with Dr. Robert Cloninger, a professor of Psychiatry from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri who studies the brain. He discusses the biological evidence associated with the “partial reinforcement extinction effect.” His conclusion: “If you constantly reward a kid…you don’t build a capacity for them to be resilient to frustration.” In other words, a steady diet of praise—for example, awarding participation trophies through childhood and adolescence—produces young adults who fold at the first sign of adversity.

Experts in the piece do not mince words; adults are responsible for creating monsters of entitlement, a generation of Millenials (those born, roughly, from 1980-2000) with shelves full of participation trophies who have learned the lesson that they deserve praise just for showing up.

Apparently, for some Millenials, the lesson extends into their college years: According to a 2008 study from the Journal of Youth and Adolescence (cited in the story), one in three college students agreed with the statement that they “deserved at least a B if they attended most classes in a course.” One in three college students is wrong! “Attending most classes” entitles you to nothing. But, what if we substituted “tried” for “attended most classes”? In other words, would you agree that you “deserved at least a B if you tried in a course”? It may be hard to hear, but the answer is still “no.”

Every one of us is expected to try. I try to make my classes interesting and challenging; I try to publish my research in top-tier scholarly journals. Sometimes I fail; not all class meetings go as well as I hope, and good journals reject eight or nine of every 10 submissions they receive. So, I try to learn from these failures and improve, which is when I have to try even harder. Identifying what went wrong, establishing a plan to correct those things, implementing that plan, and assessing the outcome are all ways I try to be a better professor and scholar.

For such a simple word, “try” means different things to different people. Some believe “trying” to write a paper means starting it two days before it is due instead of one, regardless of how long we have known about the assignment, or “trying” to prepare for an exam by reading the material, for the first time, the night before/morning of the test. The truth is, these approaches do work for some people, at least once in a while.

But, if you are “trying” in these ways and not getting the results you desire, then you need to “try” differently. At Stonehill, there are offices (e.g., Academic Services, the Center for Writing and Academic Achievement, the Office of Accessibility Resources) and individuals (e.g., reference librarians, writing tutors, your professors) in place to help you “try” more efficiently.

Failing at something does not make us failures in life, just like losing at sports doesn’t make us losers in life. Everyone tries and fails. But, grown-ups do not deserve trophies for trying. Our reward is learning from the failure by not repeating the same mistakes, and trying to do better next time.

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