COLUMN: Should every child get a trophy?

Published 4:01 pm Thursday, October 19, 2023

It seemed to have started in the 1970s. Kids were struggling making their baseball team, cheer squad, or perhaps band. No matter how hard they tried, the kids were faced with limited success. The best of the group participated, and the ones not quite up to par “sat on the bench” most of the time.

Seeing the disappointment their kids experienced, many parents and coaches decided to let everyone play. In baseball, the best players played the first half of the game and the “B team” played the last half. The same scenario existed for most activities for school-age children.

This philosophy presented numerous problems which have harmed these kids as adults. First, they did not learn to deal with disappointment since it was short-lived and taken away. We all need to learn that we fail at times and must learn to deal with that failure. Because they had never learned to accept failure, they felt this was the way their future world dealt with problems – if I am not successful, I’ll get a pass anyway.

Second, failing at something was a sign that they may need to be pursuing more appropriate goals. Maybe baseball was not their calling, but art or music may be a better fit. Maybe they failed at computer skills but having exceptional mechanical skills should be their future. Because they were rarely asked to confront their failures, they did not find out their true aptitudes and calling.

Third, the organization was not as productive as it could have been. The baseball team, the cheer squad, and the band did not reach their potential because they did not always have their A team in place. As a result, mediocracy prevailed. 

Some high schools eliminated the awarding of valedictorian and salutatorian recognition for graduating seniors expressing the view that only two graduates would be honored as such and those not recognized would “feel bad.” These schools replaced recognizing the top graduates by placing graduates in groups of academic achievement.

Those who attended colleges after graduation discovered that college students had a great deal of freedom. They also discovered that the level of effort required to do well in a course required more application but, being free to determine priorities, there seemed to be more time for play.

In his 2019 book “Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America,” Richard K. Vedder stated that “American college students spend a great deal less time than those in college a half-century ago doing academic things: going to class, reading, preparing for examinations, writing papers, and participating in group discussions.” He also stated that today’s college students receive “dramatically higher grades than earlier generations of college students.” Dr. Vedder should know – his career spans 58 years as a professor and is the author of five books on US economic history, college effectiveness, and public policy. 

Writing for the “Wall Street Journal,” Cheyanne Mumphrey reports on recent American College Testing (ACT) scores taken by many high school students. The test, traditionally used by college admissions staff, evaluates a student’s readiness for college and career. Unfortunately, test scores by high school students have fallen the last six consecutive years to the lowest level in over 30 years. For the class of 2023, only 21% met benchmarks that predicted success in college. Most colleges have responded by eliminating the requirement for standardized testing, thus lowering the bar for success. Most professors have responded by lowering course requirements.

The “Wall Street Journal” has also reported numerous times that employers are so disappointed with the skill levels of recent college graduates that they are evaluating trainability over current skill levels.

Perhaps it is now time to rethink the across-the-board awarding of trophies and return to the time when trophies rewarded those who truly earned success due to dedicated hard work.

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His email address is