The Problem With Prize Culture

The carving up of honor probably doesn’t improve children’s performance or motivation — but it may mean a bigger payday for those who run childhood tournaments

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How come it seems like every kid today is a champion for something, when we know every kid can’t be a star? These days, kids are first divided by age, then by previous achievement, and often by the type of performance (e.g. the top 8-year-old recreational tap dancer in the country, or the best 11-year-old with a chess rating below 1,500 who played fast chess at a national tournament). Smaller categories create more opportunities for prizes — what I call “the carving up of honor.”

I discovered the carving up of honor while researching my new book, Playing to Win, which describes 95 families with elementary-school-age children involved in competitive chess, dance and soccer. Dance competitions carve up honor the most, as every entrant receives a formal designation of “silver,” “gold” or “diamond” before being ranked. (If you watch TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, you know many child beauty pageants actually award each and every contestant a “title,” resulting in nonsensical awards, like the Ultimate Grand Supreme or the 4-12 Mini Beauty Supreme.) One child still gets the biggest trophy, but every child gets some tangible sign of their participation, even if it is seemingly trivial, like the best character routine among 11-year-olds who dance in a trio.

Two historical trends, and two contemporary trends, have led to this. First, the desire to dampen overt competition in school classrooms was part of the self-esteem movement that started in the 1960s, according to historian Peter Stearns in his book Anxious Parents, and it focused on building up children’s confidence and talents without being negative or comparing them to others. But the self-esteem movement did not really reach activities outside of the classroom, like sports, and private organizations rushed to fill the competitive void created by schools. With the decline of competition in the classroom, parents wanted more competitive opportunities for their children and were willing to pay for it — part of why we have such an extensive pay-to-play system in afterschool activities today.

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Second, American culture in general has increasingly embraced prizes and awards. The winner-take-all prize frenzy that characterizes American culture started in the early 20th century, captured by the development of organized American sporting culture. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was established in 1910, the same time when a variety of professional sports leagues grew, like the NFL. Less popular sports also developed their organized, competitive infrastructures around this time; for example, the first synchronized swimming competition in the U.S. took place in 1939.

In the second half of the 20th century, the emphasis on competition, and rankings in general, intensified. The 1970s was the most intense period of prize creation, including the addition of even more prizes to fields such as film and literature. Music competitions, including the introduction of the American Music Awards, saw similar growth in this time period. And even offbeat activities, like competitive eating, developed their own competitions in the 1970s. Since that decade, prizes have become increasingly fashionable, along with children’s competitive activities.

What’s more, from the moment a child is brought into this world, he or she is labeled with a number. At birth this is the Apgar score, a score from zero to 10 that a doctor uses to evaluate the health of a newborn child. Throughout early childhood, every child is given a percentile associated with size. As a child enters school the identifiable number becomes a standardized test score, either an OLSAT (for entry into kindergarten) or an SAT score (for entry into college). That this is now happening in afterschool activities is a sign of the unrelenting quantifying and ranking in contemporary American childhood.

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Various actors in children’s chess, dance and soccer numerically rank children as part of the process of determining winners. These rankings are public, and children and adults involved with each activity are intensely aware of where they and their friends and rivals fall within various hierarchies. Of the three activities, chess is the most precise when it comes to ranking, turning performance into a numeric measure and then published ranks. Every three months, the United States Chess Federation publishes lists of the top-100 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds and so on. Many chess kids refer to themselves by their chess rating, for example, “I’m 850.” Soccer also uses a form of public ranking, assigning children to A and B teams and then sorting them into flights within leagues based on their performance. Youth-soccer aficionados also rank teams full of elementary-school-age kids on the Internet.

Students, their families and teachers continuously monitor these rankings. Within the local studios and clubs there is an annual process for selecting competitors (if you watch Lifetime’s Dance Moms, this is like the weekly “pyramid” showing dancers how they stack up relative to their teammates). The carving up of honor can help soften the blow of a low ranking, but it doesn’t hide the fact that there are micro and macro hierarchies in all competitive children’s activities — and in most American kids’ lives on a daily basis.

While awards may help people set goals and practice their activity diligently, awards are also a savvy business practice — part of a more general commercialization of childhood. Awards help ensure that clients return year after year. Keeping kids, parents, teachers and coaches happy with lots of recognition keeps the money flowing to the organizers of the competitions.

Trophies may keep kids coming back, and their parents paying, but psychological research finds that giving kids rewards for doing an activity (even something as simple as a paper certificate) means lower levels of intrinsic motivation. High levels of intrinsic motivation is precisely what we want to foster among kids to help them attain long-term success and take pride in a well-earned achievement. But the carving up of honor and the trophy culture that accompanies it has clearly gone too far: carving up honor probably doesn’t improve children’s performance or motivation — but it may mean a bigger payday for those who run childhood tournaments.

So parents need to be cautious when pursuing titles for their young kids, and make sure the honor created is for their kids, and not for reflected glory for anyone else in their children’s lives.

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