By Paul Newberry
AP National Writer
James Harrison made his kids give their trophies back.
There’s no reward, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker insisted, just for showing up.
Sorry, James, you got that one wrong.
Rest assured, his 6- and 8-year-old sons will get plenty of experience dealing with failure over the course of their lives. They’ll come to learn soon enough what a dog-eat-dog world it is out there. No need to deprive them of this bit of pride and accomplishment, even if they received their trophies merely for taking part in a camp.
We’ll take that over the alternative, the win-at-all-costs mindset on display at Friday at the Little League World Series, which endured a cheating scandal just last year, where there’s never a shortage of overbearing parents and 11- and 12-year-old kids potentially ruining their arms with curveball after curveball.
“Participation in youth sports has been declining steadily over the last decade,” said Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova University. “If giving kids a trophy for showing up and trying to improve keeps them involved, then it is a good thing.”
Harrison, still going strong in the NFL at age 37, stirred up a national debate when he revealed that he wouldn’t let his kids receive a trophy until they had done something to earn it.
“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” Harrison ranted on Instagram. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.”
In fairness to Harrison, it’s not surprising he would feel that way. He’s the classic overachiever, a guy who wasn’t even drafted out of college but has made the Pro Bowl five times and played on a pair of Super Bowl-winning teams.
He didn’t get that far simply by participating.
“I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned,” Harrison went on, “and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best … cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better.”
His kids will probably turn out just fine.
Maybe they’ll even be star football players, just like their dad.
My 16-year-old son won’t be. But I don’t think he’ll be any less of a success in life just because his parents gushed over the trophy he received years ago for playing T-ball.
“I am not surprised that Harrison would take this view. As a professional athlete he lives in an unbelievably competitive world where finishing second is simply intolerable,” Eckstein wrote in an email. “But kids should be motivated to play sports because it builds friendships, challenges them to improve, and, oh yes, can actually be fun. By focusing too much on winning and championships, we set kids up to stop participating at all, lest they be considered failures.
“This is not coddling kids,” he added, “it is treating them LIKE kids, not tiny adults.”
Or course, the colors of any issue are rarely black and white.
It’s always good to have plenty of gray on hand.
There’s something to be said for teaching our kids to deal with failure, to use their setbacks as a learning tool, to recognize that they’re going to get knocked down from time to time but they’ll be stronger when they get back up.
Rebecca “Kiki” Weingarten, a former elementary school teacher who worked in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration and now serves as a life coach for corporations and educators, praised Harrison for sending just the right message to an entitled society that often buckles at the first sign of adversity.
In essence, she believes we all need the sort of tough love that Harrison was doling out to his kids.
“It’s startling to see what’s happening with kids that grew up with this attitude of getting a trophy because they appeared,’” she said Friday in a telephone interview. “I hear it all the time. Employees think they’re doing something just because they showed up.”
She goes a step further, saying that sort of parenting produces young adults who don’t want to hear anything except what they already believe, the sort of attitudes that have led comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock to give up playing college campuses because of audiences that are too focused on political correctness.
“Something’s happening where parents do not want their kids to deal with anything negative, to have no negative feedback,” Weingarten said. “Well, you don’t win at everything all the time. You just don’t. That’s competition. If you want to start a business … you have to shove some people out of the way. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But you have to learn to sling some arrows.”
Still, there’s a balance to life that Harrison fumbled away with his sons.
Yes, there’s always going to be winners and losers in life.
But there’s nothing wrong with praising our kids — or even giving them a trophy — when they at least enter the game.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963.