AUGUST 2014 The Costco Connection 19
from an expert in the field:
from an expert in the field:
ANY PARENT who’s ever
tried to get his or her kids
to try something new
understands that sometimes you have to bribe
and coax for a little while
until kids get the hang of it and realize they like
it. Without some external positive reinforcement at the beginning, the next Wayne Gretzky
might never discover a love of the sport.
This is where participation rewards come
in. When used correctly, a trophy or award for
“just showing up” can keep a youngster moving
forward. It’s also an important training step,
showing youths the kind of rewards they can
expect in the future, the method of their delivery
and what kind of reaction they’ll get from their
peers. Called “achievements” in game parlance,
these rewards are then meted out in more measured ways. Rather than being given out for
every action thereafter, they are awarded at
increasing levels of challenge and difficulty.
If youngsters were rewarded for every
action, the concern over participation rewards
would have some merit. However, I haven’t
seen many examples of sports teams, teachers
or parents giving out hundreds of awards to
children throughout a season or semester. In
fact, most of the successful competitive systems
I’ve researched—such as Tabasco Nation (an
online social media loyalty program offered by
the venerable hot sauce maker)—use achievements sparingly, but heavily weighted toward
the early days.
Even when rewards are given out more
often, if a system is meaningful then the rewards
offered are also valuable. Consider badges in
scouting or the military. To people outside the
system, the badges seem excessive and possibly
pointless. To those who believe strongly in the
values of the organization, the badges are very
important: They signify meaningful achievement and status. And because meaning can’t be
easily determined until you’re invested in a system, that early achievement trophy might be all
the more important. It helps ensure that you get
past the first hump and figure out if you care.
If we demonize rewards because we believe
they are making kids afraid of failure or squelching their drive, then we are throwing the baby
out with the bathwater. Participation rewards are
a foundational element of gamification, a popular system for getting kids and adults engaged in
work, education, behavior change and products
or services. After all, if people don’t show up,
they can’t achieve anything at all. C
BEGINNING IN the
1980s, many parents, educators and coaches became
consumed by the theory
that high self-esteem was
essential to psychological
well-being, and that children should be protected
from experiences potentially damaging to a
developing self-image. This led to the rise of
“Everybody gets a trophy” programs, so no child
ever feels like a “loser.”
Universal trophies must end.
First, researchers have since debunked the
self-esteem myth. Commissioned by the
American Psychological Society, a team of scholars conducted a thorough review of the scientific
research on self-esteem. They reported that
boosting self-esteem doesn’t lead to increased
kindness, improved academic achievement or
Also, researchers have cautioned against
attempts to promote children’s self-esteem.
Scientists have found that extravagant, universal
praise, whether a verbal “You’re a genius!” or tangible trophies, can lead to narcissism.
Studies have further shown that, when kids
know they’re getting an award, they subsequently
lose interest in the activity. In a Stanford
University experiment, researchers asked preschoolers to draw a picture, but they told some
kids that every participating child would receive
a certificate. The children expecting certificates
spent less time coloring, and the quality of their
And, a 2014 study in Psychological Science
found that, when kids low in self-esteem were
given inflated praise, they worked less and chose
easier tasks. Embarrassed by the insincere fuss,
This is not to say every activity should
become a competition. It’s better to give no trophies at all, particularly to very young children,
or children just beginning an activity. Kids need
time to learn rules and master skills. Once they
have done that, then perhaps a few trophies—for
improvement and character—will inspire them
to further heights.
One participation trophy will probably not
destroy a child’s psyche. But constant trophies
teach children to fixate on the result—when they
should be focused on improvement, regardless of
a win or loss.
When everyone gets trophies for everything,
the real lesson is that nothing is worth doing,
unless there’s a prize attached. Children should
participate in activities for enjoyment, friends
and fun. It would be tragic to tell children reasons like those weren’t good enough. C
Opinions expressed are those of
the individuals or organizations
represented and are presented
to foster discussion. Costco and
The Costco Connection take no
position on any Debate topic.
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Gabe Zichermann is an entrepreneur, public speaker and author of
The Gamification Revolution (McGraw Hill, 2013; www.gamification.co).
Ashley Merryman is an award-winning journalist and co-author of
two New York Times best-sellers ( www.ashleymerryman.com).