Have you ever noticed the trend in today’s society to give everyone who participates in something, no matter how trivial their contribution, some sort of “award” for their participation? Even the worst players on the Little League team get something shiny to hang in their rooms for bothering to show up to the game. Maybe unimportant, but it seems okay. After all, it doesn’t hurt anything, and maybe some appreciation for even the least talented participants is encouraging to them, and helps them want to continue in the sport, right? Well, these little “awards,” though they can be harmless, are actually a manifestation and exacerbation of a bigger problem within society.
What is an Award?
Now, the real problem is not with participation awards themselves, but the mindset that has blessed and propagated them. To understand this big underlying problem, it is first necessary to understand what awards ought to mean. To give an award to someone means that, during that particular competition, he performed the best (or near to it) of anyone. It is a distinction that no one else is going to get in that time and place. Conversely, by giving everyone an award, it’s an easy jump in logic for the losers to think, “Winning doesn’t mean much,” or “You won… but who cares? I’m a winner too!”
For clarification’s sake, I do not intend to say that every kiddie sports club or Little League that gives a participation award intends by it to demean the winners, and there are instances (particularly with the littlest kids, who are able to understand only that someone else got something they didn’t) the fripperies for no reason are not bad. Again, a cheap medal is not the real problem; rather, the problem is this “everyone wins” mindset that it helps to manifest.
Participation Awards Make Competitions—and Awards—Valueless
So, these awards detract from the winner and communicate to the losers that losing is not a real loss—what does this cause? Because the act of winning is devalued, competition itself becomes pretty pointless. There is little to no point in trying at all. But, again, do kiddie competitions really matter that much? The Little League itself may not, but the idea of competition, approached in the right way, is a good thing, and very important.
Now, as the mindset that can come from participation awards makes competition meaningless, taking the importance away from being the best, naturally it suppresses the positive qualities of competition. But, being the best is not necessary. By now I may sound contradictory, but a clarification is in order. If an athlete just wants to win so he can lord it over everyone else, then not only is winning not important, but it might be better for his character for him not to participate at all. However, if the athlete wants to get better from a love of the sport, or for the sake of achieving a new personal best, then his efforts become a good and worthy pursuit. When one’s perspective is not clouded with the desire to win, then competing in something is bound to lead to both physical and mental betterment.
We Were Made to Strive
We humans were actually intended to do well in our leisure pursuits. When God first created man, his human nature was untainted, and thus, had he been inclined to cultivate an ability in something like tennis, it would likely have been easy for him to master. Even though original sin did come in to the world, and life became hard for man, God still gave us special abilities with which to serve Him; they merely require more work to perfect. Thus, when we cultivate the talents He gave us in ballet or baseball or anything, we become closer to the persons we were intended to be.
Good Ends Require Sacrifice
To return this to participation awards, they in turn show that our society tends to be one of complacency. Though God intended us to use He gave us for good, our society has lost sight of serving Him as its end. People are now denying that they were made for anything other than “enjoying” this life, just as they see fit. If there is no God, then there is also nothing left to life but seeking out what we want—or at least what we think we want. Furthermore, we have all been given equal opportunity for this “enjoyment” of our lives. Yet, behind the amazing result, what does a real display of talent require? Far from enjoying the ride every moment, a true magnum opus requires sacrifice and denial, blood, sweat, and tears. In order to become really good at something, we have to lay down that to which our society offers great devotion; namely, the enjoyment of the moment. When we make sacrifice for a greater good, even for something as seemingly nonreligious as playing the flute, we are engaging in one of the key practices of the Christian life, specifically, suffering in the moment in order to achieve a greater goal later.
Without Talent, No Jealousy?
Even apart from wanting to enjoy the moment, the secular world has another reason for contempt of this sacrificial dedication. Most of us have heard the line from the John Lennon song, Imagine, “I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” Though the song itself is a call to atheism, the line sums up the reason well; if no one is striving to better their innate gifts so all can be “one,” and equal with each other, then no one need have any reason to feel “slighted” for being less talented. Perhaps everyone would be happier in choosing this “oneness.” Yet, what sort of a world would this be if the dancers never danced, the inventors never innovated, and the Cubs never bothered trying to win the World Series? Personally, I think that the world would have a lot less joy and light, in more ways than one.
Now comes another interesting part: the reader may now be asking “Is she really blaming the whole culture of complacency on kiddie participation awards?” No—that borders on the ridiculous. Rather, in addition to being a manifestation of the problem, they exacerbate it. If the kids of today are used to being recognized for doing nothing, they will more than likely carry that idea into adulthood, and be less productive in later life because they will be used to being praised for literally doing almost nothing. The awards seem to show that people are expected to both commend and be commended for effort’s lack instead of its presence.
If the people who do have good work ethics do not do anything about it, the culture of complacency, or at least the conditioning toward it, is only going to get worse. Obviously, since I am not a parent, I am not an expert in raising children. However, if any of you are reading this and would like to know what to do about it, here is my opinion. If your son or daughter gets an award for coming in last and does not make anything of it, then follow his lead. If he thinks it’s special because “Look Mommy! I was in a real competition!” that is fine too. The problem comes when it turns into, “I’m just as good as the ‘winner,’” and if you see it turning into that, maybe sit him down and explain that, while winning is hardly everything, it should be a nice reward for hard work, and if he tries to work hard, he can win too. He should understand that the stronger the effort, the larger the payoff. Now if only secular society could understand that too, the world would be a better place. Even when we cannot see that God exists, the life that He meant for us to live remains.