Pittsburgh Steelers LB James Harrison’s post about returning his sons’ participation trophies has stirred up debate. I can see both sides of the argument. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to give young kids something tangible to remember being part of a team or activity, no matter how they stood up against the competition. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to teach kids there are rewards you get for hard work you don’t get for simply showing up. And it is certainly Mr. Harrison’s prerogative to parent his boys the way he feels is best for them.
To me, the bigger question for every parent is this: how do we react when our kids decide they don’t want to participate at all?
Maybe we don’t like participation trophies, but we do like trophies. Sometimes we like them more than we should. Whether those trophies are something you put on the shelf, or something that more resembles the pride a father feels when his son’s name is announced over the loudspeaker, sometimes they tempt us to push our kids into continuing pursuits long after they stop having any sort of passion to do so.
What do you do when your kid wants to quit? No doubt, there are times we need to lead and encourage our teenagers to stick with it. But there are also times when it’s appropriate to give them permission to let go. As parents, the challenge is seeing past ourselves so that we can know the difference.
I don’t want my kids to be quitters. I don’t know a parent who does. But maybe a definition of quitter would be helpful. When a 9th grader’s name is written on the team roster, he has not signed a 4-year contract. Walking off the field or clearing out your locker mid-season is not the same as making a post-season decision to pursue another passion. There’s a difference between being a quitter and quitting.
Teenagers are in a time of life when they are discovering who they are. Why do we expect them to wait until college to act on those discoveries? Maybe the reason college students change majors 17 times is because it’s the first time in their lives they’ve felt they had choices, and aren’t sure what to do with them.
You have to know your kid. If he’s wanting to quit because he’s mad his coach made him run lines for being late to practice, that’s not a good reason. If she’s wanting to quit so she can spend more time with her boyfriend, that’s not a good reason. If she’s wanting to quit because she gave it her all and now feels a strong desire to give her all to something else, you have to consider – maybe that’s a good reason.
But he’s really good at it (or could be). If we’re going to say we don’t want to teach our kids entitlement by awarding them for participation, then we must also agree we are not entitled to having them participate in activities we love more than they do.
This summer our 16-year-old daughter told us she wants to quit basketball so she can invest her time in things that will help with a future career in journalism. She doesn’t think about playing basketball long-term; she dreams about being a writer. That is where her heart is. She’s good at basketball. She has been awarded for her leadership on the team. So it wasn’t an easy decision. It wasn’t easy for her to bring it to us, or to her coaches and teammates. And honestly, it wasn’t easy for us in giving her guidance. The bottom line is you can be good at more than one thing, and sometimes, you have to narrow your focus….even if that means disappointing some people. That’s a valuable life lesson.
It’s important to be part of a team. True fact. There is no debating the value of working together with others for a common goal. The problem is when we think the only place that happens is in athletic competition.
As a parent, I have to recognize that my daughter will be no less part of a team by being a part of the newspaper or yearbook staff, just like there are kids learning team concepts in band, theater, the classroom, and in their church youth groups. There are many ways to be a part of a team.
One of the things I appreciate most about my childhood is my parents encouraged me to try all kinds of activities. I took swimming lessons, diving, tennis, ice skating, and gymnastics. I was a cheerleader for a season (Pee Wee Football, The Woodlands, TX, circa 1977). I played softball and basketball. I took 5 years of piano lessons. When I got 3rd place in UIL speech competition, mom and dad let me go to a speech and drama camp. The point is, the whole world was made available to me. Never once did my parents force my decision-making or make me feel the burden of an expectation to be or do something. They simply gave me the opportunities to discover for myself who I am and the gifts God has given me.
No, everyone is not a winner in sports. But we don’t have to help our kids learn that lesson. They learn it naturally, from the time they start choosing captains on the playground at recess. What we can help them learn, instead, is there is a world of opportunity with room for all sorts of gifts and passions. And in the pursuit of finding your place in that world, sometimes, it’s OK to quit.