The Kind of Trophy Every Kid Should Receive

These days, every kid gets a trophy.

A lot of people don’t like that.

And I understand. Trophies are about performance. They are meant to honor hierarchy, to differentiate winners from losers. And they’re supposed to prepare our kids for a dog-eat-dog world, where simply showing up isn’t the same as working your way up. Like I said, I get it.

So, why do we keep doing it?

self-esteem

Photo Credit: LightField Studios (Bigstock)

In Loveable, I tell this story:

…when the other team scored against us, I sprinted for midfield. I was waiting for my team when they arrived, and gave high-fives all around, as if we had scored the goal. Because when a bunch of six-year-olds fail and then look to you, they’re never wondering how they did; they’re always wondering who they are. They’re not wondering who gets the biggest trophy; they’re wondering who gets the biggest hug.

Trophies are like golden hugs.

They are golden hugs from a generation of parents who are becoming aware—for the first time in human history—of the shame they experienced in childhood. Golden hugs from a generation of parents who want their kids to know their value cannot be quantified by a scoreboard—that losing doesn’t make you a loser—and that love is a birthright, not a reward system.

That is its own kind of victory.

Our kids need to know their beauty cannot be altered, regardless of how ugly the final score is.

But maybe trophies—those instruments of differentiation—aren’t the best tool for doing so. Instead, rather than giving every kid on my soccer team a trophy, they each get a different kind of award.

Or, rather, an “aword.”

The first season I gave awords, I spent some time contemplating each of the kids, and then I picked a word to describe their truest, worthiest self. Words like “fierce” and “joyful” and “persistent” and “gentle.” After the final game, one by one, I began telling each kid their word. Suddenly, they were no longer distracted by juice boxes. The words seemed to be quenching a very different kind of thirst.

Afterward, my wife told me I should write the words down the next time.

So, the following season, I wrote the words on slips of paper and gave them to the players. As I handed out the words, the same hush came over them. For a moment, juice boxes forgotten.

Afterward, my wife told me some of the words were too complicated for young children to understand. She said I should also explain the word when I give it to them.

So, the following season, I gave each player their word, defined it, told them how I saw the word reflected in them, and then I gave them a benediction, encouraging them to apply that beautiful part of themselves to the rest of their life. Again, they were hushed. Quenched.

Afterward, my wife reminded me about the limitations of auditory memory and told me I should write down the description of the word as well.

So, the following season, I gave each kid a slip of paper, with their word and description. Hushed and quenched.

Afterward, my wife told me, “Well done.”

But then this season, my co-coach took the awords to a whole new level. We called them “paper plate awords,” and each child received a paper plate with their name and word on the front, and the description of their word on the back. During the regular season, we were the worst team in the league. We didn’t win a single game. No one got trophies.

But every kid got their word.

Competition is important. It teaches us teamwork and cooperation and it encourages the pursuit of excellence. But affirmation is important too. Just as important. Because it is a reminder that what is already inside of us is already excellent. And the real goal of life is not to kick a ball into a net.

The real goal of life is simply to turn ourselves inside out, until the beauty already alive on the inside of us becomes the beauty we are living on the outside of us.

Until, for instance, the fierceness with which we defend the goal becomes the fierceness with which we defend the downtrodden. Until the joyfulness with which we kick a corner kick becomes the joy we shine into the darkest corners of this broken world. Until the persistence with which we practice throw-ins becomes the persistence with which we practice our passion. Until the gentleness with which we listen to a coach, becomes the gentleness with which we listen to a child.

Perhaps today, after a lifetime of chasing trophies for your performance—or awarding yourself trophies regardless of your performance—it’s time to get still, instead. Maybe it’s time to pay close attention to who you are at the beautiful, worthy, timeless center of you. Maybe it’s time to award yourself an aword. And if you can’t come up with one right away, I’ve got one you can have until you do:

You are loveable.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Shannon Sprague

    As I sit here reading your blog today, I am also 3/4 way through your book, I am realizing that we need an affirmation revolution, training for moms and dads, teachers, coaches, pediatricians, etc….. to remind kids of this stuff OFTEN. I am realizing that being human can be messy, we can mess up, a little or a lot sometimes, make mistakes, make the wrong decisions and still we are amazing. I am realizing that all too often our children enter school systems where they add to their “healthy” collection of shameful incidents that mold their sense of self. Here is where they begin building the safe self that they chose to show the world. I’m realizing that a lot of suffering can come from that. All the while, we remain amazing. I am realizing that once we put down the “safety” self and really find the people who can embrace our true self, we can put down that boulder that we have been carrying all through life. THAT deserves a trophy! So many more people need to know this…… Mirroring back the gems I’m reading in your book….. Thank you and PS even though I don’t know her, I love your wife 😉

    • Kathy Holland

      Amen – so needed!

      • Thank you, Shannon and Kathy! And Shannon, one of my favorite quotes lately from Henri Nouwen is this, “In spirituality, statistics don’t count. The two or three people who hear you well, can do miracles.” Don’t be surprised when you do miracles with what you’re becoming aware of. And thank you for hearing me well. 😊

  • mick whitty

    🙂

  • Ginny

    You, Kelly Flanagan are a healer of wounded spirits. Thank you.

  • A. Julie

    Thanks to your thoughtful wife for her collaboration! This is an example to be followed, by anybody and with anybody.

  • Lynn Ploe Gillis

    I just love how your brain works, but mostly I love how your heart works. Today I award you the words Beautiful Soul.

  • JC

    My word…integrous…it’s not typically used in its adjectival form like other synonyms of the noun “integrity”, but it’s my word. I learned it about myself a long time ago. I care what people think about me and I care what I think of myself so, for me, being integrous is critical. My biggest hurt has always been when someone questions my integrity or if I think of my own actions or thoughts and question it of myself. I don’t need people to like me but I feel like I need people to believe that I will deal with them honestly and that I do not quit or take short cuts. The word also speaks to me about how I need to conduct myself, when nobody is looking. God, of course, is always looking and unfortunately more people are looking and paying attention than I care to say sometimes. What I do, how I do it, even what I don’t do or how I don’t do it, and my intentions behind it all are part of what makes me integrous or not.

    • That is lovely, JC. May we all be so clear about the one very good word that is at the core of us and that we want to manifest in everything we do. The world would be a kinder, simpler place. Thanks for being integrous.

  • rdwarf2000

    I was fortunate enough to have a father who, when we lost another of our long string of games, would ask, “what did you learn?” We live to grow, and your method makes it a beautiful, rather than a painful, journey. Thank you.

    • “What did you learn?” That question would save us all an awful lot of shame. Thanks to you and your father for these good words.

  • Sue Scott

    I was going to say “another home run” …. but that’s the wrong sport. Point is still valid though. I was always troubled by “participation awards” …. but THIS, I LOVE. Our daughter only played soccer for a brief time (she’s a dancer) but her soccer coach was also great. The kids could never keep track of the score while they were playing. When the game was over, they’d come off the field saying, “what was the score? Did we win?” He would never tell them…. first everyone got a high five and “did you have fun?” ….. and then congratulations to all for their team work…. (regardless of outcome) …..Priorities….

    But I Love the paper plate awards …. THAT I would heartily support every team member receiving!

    Keep up the great work!

    • By third grade, they’re all trying to keep score but not very good at it. It’s nice to see they still get so caught up in the game that they lose track. Blessings to you and your family, Sue!

  • Darlene Underwood

    Grateful for your words today. I am making hard decisions for my mothers life, she has Dementia that is going into Alzheimers one day at a time, nurse calls it Transition, I call it ; In God’s Hands, I am
    a believer in God’s healing power, I believe God is and has the final say in my mother’s life. I have asked prayer for her complete recovery, in Jesus name.
    Thank you for reminding me how powerful
    WORDS are, I have not been using good words for myself in this situation! Your message has turned me around, Thank you and God bless you all.

    • Darlene, I’m so glad this reminded you that words matter and, indeed, may be the most powerful thing we have. May you and your mother find the blessing in the midst of what seems a curse and, in doing so, redeem a little more of the pain and mess.

  • D Boyd

    At my grandson’s little league baseball game last night the opposing pitcher was taking an inordinate amount of time for each pitch… it was cold, rainy and everyone wanted to get the game over and go have dinner. Our coach was coaching… “give her to the count of 4 and then step out of the box”. Perfect sense for a competitive edge and to push the pitcher to pitch faster. One of our players did it a couple times, but saw that it was making the pitcher uncomfortable and she was throwing balls. We were already ahead and despite the coaches constant reminders, our players stood at the plate and waited…patiently…and were struck out. I too was impatient, it was JUST a little league game, but then it dawned on me that this was a 7-9 year old girl giving it everything she had. This time was important to HER. Thank you for the reminder.

    • Good for you for being thoughtful enough to gain a larger perspective on the game. That little girl on the mound was lucky to have you in the stands, though she may never know it.

  • Adam Feinsilver

    I wasn’t sure where this would go after the opening paragraph, but love where it ended, Kelly! So well articulated! Thank you.

  • Oh how I LOVE this, Kelly! What a heart you have. Can you imagine if all parents approached awards in this way how the sports fields across the country would change? How much could be done for the heart, soul, and mind of children that a “trophy” will never do? I suggest posting this again at the beginning of the sports season..or, just post it every day. (;

    • Ha! Thank you, Donna! I will take you up on that and remember to share it again in the fall.

  • Catherine Waiyaki

    The affirmation method you used is great. Will copy those awords…… I must. Finally given me a way to express my gratitude slowly to all I want to appreciate