5 Ways Participation Awards are Destroying America

By Matt Dawson


Participation Awards
Ok, so I might have been a bit extreme with the title.

I’m not exactly sure that we are “destroying America”, but I do believe that we are setting up the next generation for failure, in turn harming our future by NOT setting them up for success.

Let me start with a definition:

Participation Awards – showing up for a sport, activity, or event and receiving an award without merit, achievement, or success of any kind. 

Let me further clarify that there is no spiritual foundation for this post. I’m a Dad, and I do lead a church of some AMAZING kids and teenagers!  So, I care about this issue on a deep level.  Our church believes that we partner with parents to help raise the next generation to love and honor God, so how they are raised matters.

What are we telling the next generation with these awards?  What damage is being done by removing the structure of a reward system (see #3) from a sport, activity, or social event and simply giving it away to anyone who shows up.

I believe we won’t fully know the answers to these questions until it’s too late – and we might already be too late **cue the dramatic music – dun, dun, dahhhh**  –  but the following are 5 ways that I believe these participation awards are harming our kids.


5. We Create False Wins

Winning used to mean something.  So did losing.  In fact, I spent most of my childhood years losing in sports and activities.  However, those defeats are what made the wins even more special.  By allowing a reward system to create a false win, we are confusing the message to our kids and not setting clear expectations for what real success looks like in life.

4. We Exaggerate Individual Talents & Gifts

We say things like “Great job Johnny!”  But was it really?  Did Johnny pick his nose the whole time OR did Johnny clearly show that he cared nothing for this sport or activity & it was a mistake by his parents to keep him in all season.

How about this: LET’S BE HONEST with our kids and praise them for their individual gifts and talents.  Let’s not exaggerate (Read: LIE) to our kids by rewarding them and allowing them to think they’ve done well or succeeded by simply showing up.

3. We are Inconsistent with the Rules of Rewards

Everything in our lives is built on a reward system.

  • In school, you MUST show improvement and growth in knowledge to pass.
  • In love, you MUST engage and put forth effort in order to display or receive love.
  • At work, you MUST do a good job and work hard in order to keep your job.

We are doing our kids a disservice by allowing them to experience something that is inconsistent with the rest of life.  When we reward kids minimal behavior, like being present or just showing up, we are creating false expectations for their adult lives and are potentially hindering their ability to mature.

2. We Help Them Lose Their Innovative Spirit

If necessity is the mother or invention, and I believe rewarding a person for just “showing up” is the cancer of the innovate spirit. Honestly, why would we try out new things or find new ways to solve issues when we are going to be rewarded regardless of the outcome?

There is nothing like losing a game, making adjustments (even creating a new strategy), and then winning a game.  Seeing progress come from change is the heart of innovation.  I believe our kids will lose their ability to make changes in tough situations in order to see progress if they are not taught these lessons at a young age.

1. We Lose the Real Value in Participation

When we give our kids an award for participating in something, the focus comes back to them, as if they were the center of the universe. We lose the real value of participation which is learning and experiencing something with other humans.

We played on sport teams because we liked it, and we did it with our friends.  We did this group activity, because there was value in learning something new with other people.  I know there are some exceptions to the rule, but most kids are not lacking attention.

We need to uphold the real value of participation by helping our kids connect the dots, not turning the attention back on them.


Here’s the bottom line:  What is REWARDED is REPEATED!

If we award our children for just showing up, then they will think that is all they need to do in life.  Just show up to class – you’ll pass.  Just show up work – you’ll get paid.  Just show up in your marriage – you’ll live happily ever after.

However, in reality, we know that this isn’t true!   So, lets choose to come along side our kids and to teach the value of participation and hard work.  There’s still time to turn this around!

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