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When the Participation Trophy Generation Has Kids

A decade ago the country scrambled to figure out how to keep Millennials happy at work. Over time our entire generation was condensed into one simple idea: we got participation trophies for everything. There is a truth to this claim, but Millennials need to understand the deeper circumstances behind these trophies if we want to escape our generational heritage as we raise our children.

“The green light flashes, the flags go up, churning and burning, they yearn for the cup.”

The supposed problem with participation trophies is that they make people soft and entitled. Again, there’s truth there, but I think the real problem with participation trophies is that they’re symptoms of something more destructive: everything becoming a competition. The participation trophy I remember most was for a charitable walkathon. To increase our lap totals, and thus our sponsor’s financial commitments, it became a big race. To keep us from feeling down about losing when we should’ve felt good about raising money, they gave everyone trophies. Instead, maybe we shouldn’t have turned charity into a competition.

Some of you are wondering what the harm is in having a little competition to help raise money? Nothing on its own, I suppose, but our generation became stuffed to the gills with competition. Graduating in the worst economy in decades meant you needed to stand out. Everyone had college degrees, so you needed one from an elite school (or graduate school). Getting into an elite school? Well, you can’t be a C student, you have to be an A student. When everyone is now an A student? You need to get As in honors courses. When everyone is getting As in the same honors courses, you need AP, or college credit, or worst of all, you need to win by getting the most community service hours.

It wasn’t enough for school to become an increasingly ludicrous competition. Society at large found a way to convince us we needed to beat everyone at community service. When our resumes were taken care of, our personal lives fared no better. The advent of social media found a way to objectively measure our online interactions. Myspace gave us a way to rank our top friends, which we somehow found acceptable. Eventually our jokes, our travels, and even our meals were ranked and compared. Competition has so swallowed every aspect of our lives we feel the need to prove ourselves even with what we eat.

“No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine, he’s haunted by something he cannot define.”

Our generation didn’t need participation trophies because we couldn’t handle losing at kickball. We needed them because we never got to experience what life was like when you weren’t competing. Participation trophies let us take a breath in a world that asked more and more of us without ever accepting even our best.

If you’re still skeptical, look at the following generation. We did away with the participation trophies and increased the competition, and we ended up with the most driven generation that is also the most depressed and anxious generation. Just looking at games we see the scope of the problem. The escape video games provided for Millennials has been lost in a sea of achievements, eSports, and grinding for status in multiplayer games. Games got so exhausting it became more enjoyable to watch someone else do it. Competitive gamification crept into schools until even behavior was ranked with accompanying graphics and sound effects to signify to the class who was winning. The flu has been replaced by anxiety and depression as the leading cause of absences. I’ve had students text me from the hospital where they are being treated for school-related panic attacks. If this is the alternative, let’s bring back the participation trophies.

“But he’s striving and driving and hugging the turns. And thinking of someone for whom he still burns.”

So how does the participation trophy generation raise kids without trophies or anxiety? I don’t know all the right ways, but I know all right ways point to Jesus. Perhaps we can start by reclaiming the Sabbath as a day to say, “My labors are never enough, but my God created and delivered me.” Perhaps, instead of trying to constantly prove our wokeness, we can learn to do good deeds so secretly with our left hand that our right hand doesn’t know what it is doing. Maybe we will ignore the dishes and sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary. Maybe we will build a church where the weary will find Jesus whose yoke is easy and burden is light. In doing so, we might raise a generation who cares little for competition and cares even less for trophies, but cares much for widows and orphans.

And when we fall short and feel the pressure rising?

Thankfully accepting Jesus’ sacrifice provides us with eternal life: the greatest participation trophy ever given to a bunch of failures that didn't deserve a prize.


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