Parents Don’t Want Trophies For All

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Pamela Chan, Editorial/

Is participation in competitions inevitable when you sign your child up for piano, dance or some other class which you normally wouldn’t have strongly associated with a lot of competitions?

Not long ago, I had a conversation with another parent that caught my attention.  It’s a common topic amongst parents and it’s one that needs to be unpacked more.  I heard about a youth who is enrolled in a prestigious ballet school.  Much to the mother’s surprise, her daughter ended up going to ballet classes, extra ballet classes and even extra ballet time on top of all of the regular classes.  To some extent this was in preparation for performances and exams.  But it was also because competition has become a bigger part of the dance world in recent years.  Some types of dance – such as Scottish and Irish dance – have woven competition into the dance experience for decades.  Although some will say that the way that these competitions operate has changed over time.

If you are enrolling your child in an extra curricular activity and – here’s the big IF – if you hear that competition will be a part of the programme, you need to get your head around the impact that these competitions will have on your child. And you also need to come to terms with what your experience with competing was when you were growing up.

Did you experience many successes or mostly struggles when you entered competitions during your childhood years? 

Did you enjoy opportunities to compete or were they the source of a lot of stress?

Did competing pump you up or did it make you feel sick to your stomach?

Sometimes the competition side of an activity isn’t obvious when you enroll your child.  It might take a few years before your child is invited to take part in this side of the programme. It’s entirely possible that you might enter your child in an activity and be taken off-guard later on when you realize that the optional part to compete doesn’t feel so optional.

There can also be a bit of parental denial. Maybe you were told upfront that “this is a competitive programme” but you didn’t clue in to what that meant because you didn’t grow up taking part in competitions.

Have you ever entered your child in an activity, heard that there is a strong competitive side that you wouldn’t have anticipated and then just written this information off as something that’s not going to be a big deal?

Don’t do that.

It’s not just that competitions make requirements of your child.  There are often hefty costs related to time and money when you enter your child in a competition locally or in another location. If you/you and your spouse are going full out with careers while supporting other children or family members, these extra commitments might not be realistic.

Start talking to a variety of parents who have had, or still have, their children in the activity you are considering. Include questions about the competition side of the programme.

Why do their children enjoy taking part in the competitions? 

If you hear some awkward pauses and see some grimaces, find out why that parent is feeling uncomfortable.  If you’re looking down the road and see that competitions will be part of your child’s participation in a programme, here are a few topics to consider.

Is your child’s temperament similar to what you were like when you were growing up? Or is your child completely different? Maybe you hated competitions but your child will love them.

Do you feel that competitions are useful, or not ideal, during the childhood years? Or do you see them as a a bit of a plus and minus situation? 

What are the requirements for taking part in competitive activities? Will there be expensive payments for equipment, outfits, travel or extra classes?

Games and competitions are typically associated with sports; however, the requirements on family members’ time and some of the costs can still be surprising. I once had a conversation with the mum of  a soccer team member who was 12 years old at the time.  He was playing soccer 6 days a week and had major games on weekends that involved traveling to other cities in the region that are hours away by coach bus ride.  Another parent with whom I spoke told me about the costs of time and money related to keeping a child in hockey every year.

It’s a common criticism these days that parents expect that all children will receive a trophy. But that’s not what these considerations are about. It’s also not about feeling upset because some youth exhibit stronger skillsets than your own child. Taking a measured approach to whether attending regular competitions is right for your child isn’t the same as helping your child to avoid losing. Rather you’re preparing to place your child in an activity after you are fully informed about what will be involved.

Not all teachers and coaches are going to take the same approach to competitions. If you have the chance, ensure that you and the programme leader see eye to eye on the topic of competitions.  When you, your child and the coach or teacher are completely aligned in terms of the goals related to competitions, there can be many benefits and good times to be had.  But if there is conflict about goals and requirements, the competition side of extra curricular activities can become challenging and stressful to a toxic degree. Toxic levels of stress can even cause emotional and physical symptoms related to anxiety. This stress can be further exacerbated if a teacher lavishes attention on some students and barely notices others.

A school or programme that allows children to compete or not, while still being a full member of the school community, is ideal.   It can be deflating to feel sidelined in a class because you are not amongst the group of students who goes regularly to competitions. A more flexible approach allows your child to move into a competitive stream or out of it, yet not feel that leaving the school or programme is the only option if a change in plans takes place.

As a former teacher, I can confirm from first hand experience that there are teachers who give preferential treatment to students who are viewed more favourably due to  characteristics such as looks or personality, or who come from well connected and affluent families, for example.  Families that are prepared to pour money and a lot of volunteer time into a programme can be very appealing to this type of teacher or coach.  Pay attention to any rumours that a programme director, teacher or coach plays favourites.  Don’t be fooled by loud pronouncements that “hard work is the only thing that matters”.  Maybe it’s true or maybe hard work but less results will still mean that your child is overlooked for opportunities, not noticed in class or benched for most of the time during a game.

Some parents don’t mind developing close and supportive relationships with a coach or teacher that can lead to preferential treatment for their child.  Other parents think that this type of requirement is not their way of operating and would rather do just about anything else.  Meritocracy is not always the driving ideology in a programme. If you hear grumblings from parents, don’t ignore the signs. If you can, speak with parents about a programme and ask, diplomatically, if this type of problem exists at at the school, or not. Hopefully not!


For an interesting and deeper dive into the pros and cons of competition in the childhood years, head over to this New York Times article.

Thanks for reading this far.  Your perspectives on this topic matter so do share! There are deeper dives that we could take with this topic.  What advice would you like to share with other parents? You can leave a comment on the related post on the BC Family page or on Twitter.