I have to admit the whole participation trophy uproar baffled me until I became a mom. Spoiled millennials? Participation as its own reward? If all participants earn a medal, are we teaching our children entitlement? I thought it was a ridiculous debate, though, because they’re children. Who cares if they get a token of appreciation, citing the meaningfulness of having participated at all rather than, say, playing with their smartphones on the sidelines? Even little kids are discerning enough not to confuse just showing up for winning first place, and a participation trophy is just that — a good-job-pat-on-the-back concretized in a cheap piece of molded plastic.
Unless you’re a dad, it seems. Then, parenting participation gets rewarded in more ways than with a mere trophy. Many dads are critical of systems that reward kids for just showing up, unaware that they’re receiving their own rewards for showing up and parenting. They might not even be cognizant of wanting credit for showing up, because they are so used to getting it from virtually everybody around them — their partners, their friends, strangers at the grocery store.
Dads receive participation trophies for basic parenting all the time. He’s playing with the baby! What an awesome father. Oh my goodness, he packed her lunch box? Amazing. Thumbs up. Father of the Year.
I think of myself as a progressive mom and fall into this trap all the time. Participation trophies of fatherhood lurk around every corner like a forgotten Lego ready to stab you in the foot. It reminds me of a medal (okay, so it’s made of paper) that I gave my husband Jason early in our relationship. It’s been stuck to our fridge for years now. It started as an inside joke, something we playfully said to each other even before we became parents. It reads, “Not the Worst!” — which may be the best slogan for a participation trophy yet.
Recently, to lose our collective baby weight (both of the real and sympathetic variety) my beloved and I joined a gym with childcare. (Which, incidentally, I highly recommend as a sanity/fitness/relationship-builder all-in-one). We were side by side on our mats in a yoga class when the childcare provider entered the room and addressed me. “Are you Olivia’s mom?”
I replied that I was the mother in question, and learned my three-year-old had an accident in the kids’ gym from being too excited to disrupt her play to tell the caregiver she needed to go. When I fled the yoga room to retrieve my poopy preschooler, who did I turn around to see but her dad. He’d followed me out! He didn’t stay in the class simply because they’d asked for her mom! Sweet.
I heaped praise upon him, thanking him for coming with me to deal with the poop pants when his presence was not specifically requested and he could just as well have remained. But Jason said he was actively annoyed that he wasn’t beckoned. “I followed you because I was pissed off that they didn’t call me, too,” he said.
As evidenced by the childcare worker calling specifically for Mom when Dad was right there on the next mat, “traditional” gender roles in parenting are alive and well. I’d even internalized this: when I “ask” Jason to watch the girls so I can go surfing, I feel guilt. And it’s not just me. Friends of mine of both genders have made, separately from one another, comments to the equivalent of, Wow, he watches the kids just so you can surf? Wow. But if the roles were reversed and he was the surfer, it would just be normal. Even many of the books I read to my kids feature a mommy animal and a baby. Where are the dads? Off claiming their participation trophies, I guess.
Old ingrained behavior is hard to change. At a gathering of friends the other night, one of the dads somehow came to be holding my three-month-old. (We expect to see the baby passed around amongst the moms; not so much the dads). He peacefully bounced her on his knee as she smiled and drooled. My mother-in-law and I simultaneously rushed to praise him for being a “baby whisperer.” So amazing! An incredible dad!
Only later did I realize I’d effectively handed our dad-friend a participation trophy. If his partner had been bouncing the baby, we would not have batted an eye, because she’s a mom.
“But he really is a baby whisperer,” Jason said of the other dad. “I mean, the baby cried when he gave her back to my mom. She wanted to be held by him as opposed to her grandma.”
Okay, so that dad placed for a real award. Sometimes you earn it. The next time the magical dad soothed our baby was only a few days later, at a kids capoeira class I was helping teach. As the baby fell asleep in his lap and I heard myself praising him again, this time it was deliberate. He’d proven his transcendence into the exceptional: he could do this for someone else’s kid.
Back to more common reality, though, the problem with participation trophies in children’s sports is the same as with parenting. Pride should come from fathering, in doing the job day in and day out, not from being praised for the fact that you showed up. Go ahead and try to win first place.