Despite what you’ve heard, not every kid gets a trophy. But why not?
The end of the school year is awards season, when students of all ages are herded into auditoriums and cafeterias and cafetoriums to sit and listen to adults read off the accomplishments of a select few classmates. Sometimes the crowd is instructed to hold their applause until all the recipients have received their award, and if they forget, they are told, sternly, not to clap yet. By the end, every hand in the room hurts, and the kids who get their awards last get hardly any applause. The winners take beaming pictures with their certificates.
I recently attended one such elementary school award ceremony. The children, who are students of mine, cheered for each other. Everyone seemed to have a great time, and afterwards, kids were leaping out of their seats to give speeches to the crowd about the year’s end. Fifth graders expressed appreciation for their teachers; a first grader told a joke. A kindergartner (who had won several awards) took the microphone, turned to his classmates, and shyly announced: “If you didn’t get an award… don’t cry.”
I’m with him. I worry about the kids who don’t win. Because — and I can report this first-hand — not everyone gets a trophy. If there’s one thing that young people are told when there are trophies to be had, it’s that not everybody should get one. Millennials have been told it’s the thing that ruined our generation, and the ones after us, and the ones today. Adults have very strong feelings about kids’ feelings about trophies.
Before I spent any time with J, the only thing I knew about him was that he punched people with relative frequency. On his teacher’s very first day at the after-school program, J punched him. I’d see adults swoop towards him from across the cafeteria or the playground to separate him from whomever he had just punched. These incidents, along with J’s gravely serious, rarely smiling face, gave me the impression that J was bad.
So when J was on my class list for the improv comedy class that I taught on Fridays, I went in braced for a bad kid. We played a game called “Interesting Connection,” where I name two random objects and the kids have to make up a fictional narrative about how they’re connected. Usually it went something like: “What’s the interesting connection between cupcakes and pencils?” and the kids, third through fifth graders, would say something extremely silly, like “A man named Mr. Cupcake was friends with a man named Mr. Pencil and they both invented cupcakes and pencils and that’s the interesting connection.” And then I would tell them to try a little harder.
J was given the objects “Dinosaurs” and “jewelry.” He began, “There’s an interesting connection between dinosaurs and jewelry.” Dinosaurs are ancestrally related to birds, he reminded us. And so, like birds, they made nests. They would weave together twigs and rocks to make their nests, just like birds do. J was so focused it was as if he was at a spelling bee. Because dinosaurs had sharp claws, their feet would wear down the stones they used to make their nests until they were smooth and shiny. And the smooth, shiny stones would be all woven in between long threads of twigs. It was kind of like a necklace, J explained. And that’s how dinosaurs created jewelry.
So I thought that J was bad at not punching people, but it turned out he was quite good at making up an incredibly beautiful connection between dinosaurs and jewelry. And he was good at all the other acting and comedy games we played, too.
This was a wonderful thing for J to teach me, because it’s a perfectly natural thing to see a person who’s punching people and assume that person is kind of a jerk. As a teacher I know, pedagogically, of the extremely important difference between a child’s behavior and the child themselves. I know to never, ever say “You are bad” to a kid, but “Your behavior is currently [too punchy] [too disruptive] [too disrespectful].”
The idea of separating judgement of a person’s behavior from their essence as a person is probably something that should be applied to all ages, but is especially important for very young people. They are new enough to the world that whatever negative thing it is that they’re doing is also relatively new to them. A person who’s been alive for a decade, during which they’ve punched a few people, is significantly different than a person who’s been alive for two, three, or four decades and has spent them all punching people. This is one of the reasons why children shouldn’t be treated the way adults are in the criminal justice system. Of course adults shouldn’t be treated the way adults are in the criminal justice system either.
The worst thing is that, if the adults in a child like J’s life tell him: “You are a person who punches people,” he may very well keep punching people into his second decade, because that’s the thing he’s been recognized for. That’s why it’s important to instead say: “J, you are currently punching people, and you need to stop.” Or, even better, to say: “J, why are you punching people?”
J is much older now, and back then I didn’t know to ask him that question. But I know another boy who’s about his age now, M. He’s incredibly smart and well-behaved, but has always been mysteriously dissatisfied. He talks about hating school even as he enthusiastically participates– his behavior is at odds with itself. He recently told me a story about when he was suspended as a first grader. A bunch of boys were fighting, he says, and he was trying to help (some people may think a 10-year-old is an unreliable narrator when it comes to their own guilt, but I trust M). The adults thought he was part of the fight, and wouldn’t listen to his explanation of what happened, and all the kids involved were suspended. He had to miss class. He didn’t understand anything that was going on once he came back. I had asked M whether he thought suspensions were effective in terms of changing kids behavior. After telling me this story, he said that his answer was yes: “I was already a good kid,” he told me. “But when I came back, I wanted to be a bad kid.”
M has not quite succeeded, in my eyes, at being bad. But I understand why he tries. On the last day of school he said, with a big smile on his face, “I won’t miss this place!” We hugged before he left.
The year that J told me about how dinosaurs created jewelry, I got to nominate students for the awards ceremony. Since I teach theater, I was supposed to nominate kids who were especially good actors. The thing about recognizing kids that are really good at things is that the ones who stand out often stand out in many ways– Best Actor, Future Leader, Class Role Model, and so on. I was lucky though, because J was among the best comedic actors I taught, and was also a kid who was unlikely to win any awards for good behavior or leadership or stellar academics. So J got the award.
The word “disbelief” does not do justice to the look of surprise on J’s face when he heard his name announced at the awards ceremony. In comedy, J used his gravely serious face to his advantage– he became the master of deadpan, cracking up his classmates and teachers and never even letting a smile slip when people said how funny he was. After he was handed his award, J walked like a zombie back to his seat and stared at it. I wish I remember anything he said, but I only see his stunned face. When his mom came at the end of the day to pick him up, he showed it to her as she put his arm around him and they walked out of the building.
Not everyone gets a trophy. But it’s so cool to get a trophy. Why can’t everyone get one?
The disgust that so many adults feel at the idea of everyone getting a trophy has to do with creating incentives. If everyone gets a trophy then no one will try hard; if everyone gets basic food and housing to survive, then no one will work. Of course, this isn’t true. A soccer team full of 10-year-olds who all get participation trophies won’t all sit down and stop playing soccer– the kids who are good at scoring points will still want to do so. But the kid who never scored a point will, for a moment, be recognized: You played soccer too.
Instead, that kid is supposed to get the message: If you didn’t score a lot of points, no one gives a shit about you. And if that makes you sad, or if you feel that it’s not fair, get used to it. The world is a sad and unfair place. Score more goals next time. This message has always felt at odds, to me, with the equally ubiquitous platitude that children are the future. If children are the future, then why are we so gung ho about preparing them to be treated unfairly?
After the awards ceremony where the kindergartner gave his inspirational reassurance to the other kindergartners, I sat with two fourth graders as they waited for their parents to pick them up. One had won an award– “Most Improved,” and the other hadn’t won anything.
The boy who had won was very proud. He said that he really did feel that he had improved a lot over the course of the year. The other boy said that he wished he had won something.
“I would give you the award for most athletic,” I told him, which was true. Even if he can be a bit of a ball hog, he’s good at every sport I’ve seen him try. He grinned and flexed his muscles.
Most Improved’s dad came to pick him up. He showed off his certificate, and they walked out together.