Friday, June 17, 2016

The Upbringing of a Trophy Kid

Portrait of an average kid. 

One thing that's always bugged me is the label "trophy kid." 

"Trophy kid" is a slur used by older generations to demean millennials. The slur implies that because the millennial was handed unearned participation trophies and because he was mollycoddled by his parents (who protected his fragile self-esteem from ever being bruised by the harsh Darwinian world), the millennial enters the real world with a sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations, and a bloated ego. 

This label contrasts with the characters of the Baby Boomer generation. They'd have us believe that, in Caucasian America's Golden Age, they grew up in a brutal Hunger Games-like era, where they chopped their own firewood, ran marathons to school, and benefited from a more callous dog-eat-dog world that formed them into hardened, upstanding, non-consumeristic individuals. An ideal upbringing, according to this line of thinking, might be gotten in Stalingrad in 1943, or from eating your shoe in the Great Depression. 

A life's worth of participation trophies.

While visiting my parent's home, I started doing a little organizing of old stuff and came across a box of old test scores, report cards, and trophies. 

I was a trophy kid. I was awarded a participation trophy after every baseball, hockey, and football season. But the trophies did nothing to make me feel exceptional. I always knew my place. Even the most mollycoddled first grader has some understanding of where he stands among his classmates. He knows who's the smartest, the dumbest, the fastest, and the slowest. Here are a few test scores and report cards: 

Thoroughly average first grade test scores that were followed every year by average scores. 

The dreaded "area of weakness" check mark.

(Two goals in eighteen games. Yikes! (But notice Walden on Wheels's character, Josh Pruyn, with zero.)

Slightly better than average SATs.

I always knew how smart I was in relation to the rest of the class. I always knew who the better athlete was. I didn't just intuit these things: there were statistics that routinely and very clearly reminded me of my position in the pecking order. Sometimes I could tell where I ranked to the percentile. 

I was constantly reminded of my averageness. This followed me throughout my whole childhood. While the advanced students were awarded honors and got to take AP classes, I did okay in second-tier classes among my fellow second-tier peers. From age six to eighteen, all of my sports teams were horrible. Virtually every season was a losing season, and my team was always among the worst in the league. I knew nothing but academic mediocrity and athletic failure. My peers beneath me certainly were aware of their lowly position and my peers above me were probably far from satisfied in the competitive school environment in which there's always someone better. My point is that awards and trophies will never give a kid a bloated sense of self esteem in an ultra-competitive environment where he's constantly reminded of his inferiority to someone else. 

All this isn't to make a statement about trophies. Kids always know who the true winners and losers are, and the trophies were as much junk to us then as they are now. Perhaps they were meaningful to the kids who were floundering as students and athletes, and, if that's the case, I think that's enough reason to keep the tradition alive.  

And this entry is neither a condemnation of nor praise for standardized testing and a competitive grading environment. Despite being reminded of my averageness nearly every day for twelve years, I felt loved by my family, liked by my friends, and encouraged by my teachers. From them I built up enough self esteem to withstand the constant reminders of my averageness. 

I suppose all I'm trying to say is that there's no such thing as a trophy kid, at least as it exists as a label for an entire generation. It is a groundless slur used in senseless generational warfare. And I think it's wrong to suggest that building self esteem in young people is something that should be frowned upon. My trophy kid generation had among the highest suicide rates in the last sixty years. Giving a low esteem kid a certificate to tack up on his wall or telling him he's better at something than he really is, in the long run, won't do him any harm. 


Wendy Spice said...

Regardless of your perception of yourself as mediocre, I think that you are anything but average. Your commitment, intelligence and sense of purpose set you apart from the average individual in our midst. Test scores and athletic achievements do not make the man. You are an inspiration to many and a fine example for the rest of us to aspire to be. BTW, your school pics are adorable... lol.

Anonymous said...

The concept of participation trophies somehow affecting a young adult's ability to accept loss in the world is greatly overblown. I suppose it comes with being the most entitled generation ever. If you look at how little work is actually done by our generation (I'm 31), compared to the same age group in the 1950's, it really is shocking. They built roads, had manufacturing jobs, fought in wars involuntarily, and scrimped and saved. Our generation won't even save for a house or a car, much less retirement, because they're busy spending on concerts and video games. The participation trophy issue is just a red herring for the actual problem of entitlement. I have boxes of those trophies as well, and I've never one looked at them in awe and said to myself how much of a winner or loser I am. I just got them for playing some sports for a few years and once I got old enough to realize they weren't worth keeping out, I put them away.

Susan N. said...

I agree with Wendy, above!

Anonymous said...

Here's the missing question...If the trophy is not worth keeping, then why are they given out?

The trophy is/was supposed to be a token of accomplishment; a physical marker of having achieved something that others could not. It's been reduced, at worst, to a balm for the emotionally stunted amongst the receivers AND the givers and a total waste of money at best. (Depending on your point of view, best and worst can be interchanged.)

As far as a "slur," it's more of a stereotype. You may not be indicative of the whole, but a perceptibly large enough population of your generation DO show and have shown those traits attributed to them in enough numbers for the phrase "Trophy Kids" to stick.

As is with all stereotypes, they might not accurate represent the whole or even a large minority of the whole, but there are enough examples for it to move beyond anecdotal and into the "Common Knowledge" of the cultural whole. In other words, there's a kernel of truth to it.

I'm a handful of years ahead of you from right when the participation trophies started coming out. I hated them; refused to accept them. Its a false attempt to foster pride in ones actions, but on reflection, the truth is always known deep-down that you didn't deserve it.

Nothing worth having is every free.

Cat Quenga said...

I think of trophy kids as the kids who the parents vicariously live through. Be that academically or in sports related activities. They push them to the limit, give them ridiculous physical and mental challenges at such young ages, deprive them of expressing who they truly are, forcing them to learn redundant lessons in meaningless sports or making them be hella good at science when they just wanna draw. Also let's be real about baby boomers complaining about "millenials" because they raised us and this is what they got. We are smarter, more innovative, our technology is booming, we're clearly a more progressive society. The list goes on. We played the hand we were dealt. No one's entitled, we just figured out that homie don't play dat (In Living Color reference) when it comes to things we don't like.

Anonymous said...

Read all three of your books, loved them, and 95% of the time I’m on the same page as you regarding your way of life and thinking – sometimes I disagreed with your take on things though. I tell you this so you know my disposition a bit.

As a nearly 50 year old manager of several non-profit organizations over the last 10 years within same field of community service but in different locations from urban/city to rural environments, I’ve had the opportunity to manage many millennials, boomers, and gen-Xers. And the millennials in my experience are the most entitled and obnoxious of the three generations. That doesn’t mean I’ve never managed an entitled boomer – which I have, but almost every single (well-paid) millennial I’ve managed seem to think that they don’t have to work as hard as everyone else simply because they are special.

In this blog post you say: “My point is that awards and trophies will never give a kid a bloated sense of self esteem in an ultra-competitive environment where he's constantly reminded of his inferiority to someone else.”

Not true. I’ve found the younger generation (and my peers in the field tell me the same) have a hard time understanding the cues around them—even blatant feedback—that signal that they that need to do their part in order to get paid just like everyone else. They don’t seem to possess self-awareness, and when you point out things that should keep their egos in check, it doesn’t register.

I’m saving money like crazy (and doing a good job of it) so I don’t have to work with younger people any more even though I’ve been told I’m a good and ethical role model and fun to work with. It’s just not worth it since they are the next workforce. They put themselves before everything and everyone else. To them, there is no understanding of selfless contribution to society. Anything they do needs to somehow enhance what they get out of it. This is really too bad because I happen to have a lot to contribute to my field: technical and emotional guidance and experience, insight, empathy, progressive ideas that result in efficiencies for non-profits, and a focus/mission on helping the underdogs in our society before the rest. I have received awards that I didn’t know existed before I got them; people (coworkers, colleagues) just nominated me for them and I won. Gee . . . maybe it was because I was putting in hard work and not expecting anything in return. What a concept.

Every time I have to delegate work to a millennial, work that’s in their job description, their reaction is “What’s in it for me?” And I just think to myself “A paycheck perhaps?” They always want an extra treat, a compliment, or some added compensation. Whereas Boomers and Gen-Xrs just do it because they are supposed to and know it’s the right thing to do.

Another issue is they come into their first full-time job and after a few weeks expect to be the director of the place. They also expect to be allowed to do all their personal things on work time. I’ve experienced this repeatedly in both urban and rural organizations.

As far as the other anonymous commenter who wrote: “I've never once looked at them in awe and said to myself how much of a winner or loser I am. I just got them for playing some sports for a few years and once I got old enough to realize they weren't worth keeping out, I put them away.”

I say to that person: Why don’t you THROW them away? I got a couple of trophies as a kid, as soon as I was 22 and moved out on my own, I tossed them knowing they were juvenile accomplishments. Today I have a C.V. that’s seven pages long and reflects ACTUAL higher-level and quality work.

I realize you can’t lump all millennials into the “entitled/snowflake” category, and for the record one of my very best friends is a (non-entitled) millennial, but the proportion of the personality type in that generation is too hard to ignore. We need more Gandhi-like figures today; I can’t help but think, were he alive, how ashamed and embarrassed he’d be of humankind’s priorities.