The Cheapening of Achievement

My fourth grader and second grader just finished six weeks of community basketball. There were no practices except for game day. The games were so loosely refereed; the games were more like scrimmages than games. There was a lot of teaching and the coaches were fabulous – but it was definitely not competitive. My fourth grader’s big accomplishment during her six weeks – she was finally able to dribble the ball down the floor without double dribbling. My son’s big accomplishment – he finally took a shot at the basket. No, he didn’t make it. At the last game, participation certificates were handed out; sports drinks were handed out; and a shiny medal was handed out – to every player. These medals continue the cheapening of achievement our society is experiencing.

Cheapening of Achievement |

To be honest, I was actually quite upset. My children didn’t do ANYTHING to earn a medal.  Sure they showed up, had fun, ran up and down the court, listened to their coaches, and learned a bit of basketball. It was a good program and a good experience. But nowhere, in all that, had a medal been earned.

This is not the only community program to do this. Awarding medals for participation has become so common place, that the medals have no meaning to the children. They know they didn’t do anything extraordinary to deserve or earn the medal. In fact, the other medals my children have received for participation have become play things that younger siblings find on treasure hunts. Several of the medals have been lost or broken and none are valued by my children who received them.

Contrast that with the spelling bee medal my daughter won in her school spelling. She was the junior level spelling bee champion for her elementary school for two years in a row. She competed well for those awards. She practiced for hours each night for months prior to the competition. She spelled words I had not heard of prior to her practicing them. She went five or six rounds with another young girl in order to decide who would be the spelling bee’s champion. And when she received her awards, she knew she had won something of value. Her medal and trophy are displayed proudly in her room, kept up high and away from little fingers. The medal was worn proudly the rest of the day at school. My daughter wanted to call all of her grandparents to tell them what she had done. She had worked hard, won a tough competition, and was proud of herself.

Cheapening of Achievement |

My second grader is equally proud of his region champion Destination Imagination medal he won last school year. He, my daughter, and four other elementary students worked for months on creative problem solving projects. They spent hours together planning, preparing, and practicing for the Destination Imagination competition. They won their region competition and received medals for their efforts.   Those medals were earned through hard work, dedication, and true achievement. My son wore his DI medal to school the next day, and it too is proudly and safely displayed. He knows he earned that medal and it is very valuable to him.

Cheapening of Achievement |

My point is not every action is worth a medal. Not everyone earns a medal. And giving medals and awards in order to make children feel good about themselves is actually harming their ability to function in the real world. No, people don’t deserve the corner office at work – they earn it through hard work.
No, students don’t just deserve college scholarships – they earn them through hard work. No, accredited universities don’t just hand out Bachelors, Masters, or Doctorate degrees – these have to be earned through hard work. No, life isn’t going to give everyone a medal simply for showing up. And teaching our children that they deserve these things because they showed up teaches them that mediocrity is rewarded. They will stop trying to do their best because it doesn’t matter – they’ll get the reward anyway – and we are setting them up to fail in their future endeavors as adults.

My daughter’s spelling bee medal actually doesn’t look as fancy as her basketball medal. And someone unfamiliar with the level of work required to earn these medals would have a hard time knowing which one was worth more. The same is true about my son’s DI medal. Also, after receiving so many participation medals, my kids have started to doubt if the medals they have truly earned are actually worth anything.

Life isn’t about everyone getting the same things. There are opportunities for everyone, depending on their strengths and talents. There are so many different activities for people to try, and not everyone will be spectacular in them all. But everyone has the opportunity to find their niche and be spectacular there, if they are willing to work hard enough.

So, please coaches, teachers, and other adults interacting with my children – don’t give them awards that are meaningless. Don’t give them medals for showing up. Let my children learn that these things are earned through hard work and effort. That way we’ll stop cheapening achievement, because that’s what we’re doing. We are devaluing all awards, all medals, all achievements by handing out so many that are unearned.

By trying to make everyone feel good about themselves, and giving out meaningless awards (meaningless because no effort was required to earn them), we are making it so no award is worth anything, no achievement is special, no one is talented, no one is spectacular. And that’s a type of equality that does no one any good.


  1. normaleverydaylifeblog

    I think this is a great post. A trophy or medal used to be something we really valued and displayed proudly. Now they have become common and kids don’t place the value they used to on them. Competition is a part of life and not everyone is good at everything. I think it’s better, and easier, to learn to live with the realities that come along with that during childhood than it is once you’re an adult.


  2. Wow just wow! What is this world coming to? sounds like to me that the “no child Left behind” program is creeping into every aspect of their lives… That is so scary to me! “Hey everybody we all have to be the same!! There are no losers in this world!” Ahhh! What are people thinking?!?! I could totally see giving each child a consumable treat for participating in the basketball event and then giving a consumable treat and a medal to the teams that won…


    1. Yes, exactly. Recognizing the child’s participation is one thing, but awarding a medal for that participation just lessens the value of medals overall. Thanks for adding to the discussion. ;)


  3. Maybe your daughter did achieve something that was achievable in 6 weeks - dribbling the ball, that probably took as much effort to learn as her spellings for the spelling bee. Also your son shot at his 1st basket okay he didn’t score but surely that was a big achievement for him?
    I’m a firm believer in encouraging children and also recognising all their achievements big or small, and improving on a skill, and working hard to improve that skill is an achievement. So many children nowadays just give up if they find something hard - your children didn’t so celebrate and encourage that.


    1. Thank you for adding to the conversation and offering a different perspective. I appreciate what you said about celebrating what they did achieve. Thank you for your comments.


  4. And these kids who get these AWARDS for showing up….what’s going to happen later in life when you HAVE to work to get some where? Today it seems NO ONE loses…everyone is a winner. That doesn’t happen in REAL life. When those kids ACTUALLY LOSE or not chosen to be on a team….they’ll be devastated because they’re not used to LOSSES.

  5. Regina Atkin

    I do agree with this in so very ways, but in a team sport like this, at these young of ages it is difficult to say that one is better than another. I choose to volunteer and coach at these community events and in the past they have said choose one child to be the MVP. Let me ask you how do you look at one second grader or first grader and say “he is just better than you” When in the second grade most kids just figuring out how to play. All of the kids over the course of the 6 weeks get better, and grow.

    During a spelling bee it is easy to determine who the winner is, but in team sports like basketball at such a young age it is a little harder.

    I however don’t like how we don’t keep score, because I think that it is good to learn in a team setting how to win and lose. Maybe then you could give a reward to the better team, but to single kids out at this age is a very difficult thing to do.

    As they get older then it is easier, because you see what kids are really working for it, and really want it. But at this age most of the kids are there because their parents signed them up.

    So I agree with you in a lot of ways, but as this program was just for 1st-4th graders I don’t see the harm. My kids still hung theirs up and are pretty proud of them. Now if they did it in a Jr. High or High School setting then I think that there is a problem.


    1. You make some very good points and I appreciate how you explained your viewpoints. I truly appreciate all the volunteers and have no issues with the coaches. I just struggle with a general trend to use medals for all activities as the participation certificate.


  6. I agree with every single word of this. I also get upset when my kids get a medal for doing nothing - if I act enthusiastic when they show it to me, I’m just reinforcing the idea that the medal is what counts and it doesn’t matter whether they’ve actually DONE anything to be proud of. But if I don’t act excited, then they’re confused because mom doesn’t care about their medal (plus I get weird looks from the other parents who are are fawning over their child’s award so hard they’re about to pass out.)


    1. Thank you for your supportive comments. And I’m right there with you, getting the weird looks. Thanks for coming by. :)


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