The Problem With Participation Ribbons

Participation Ribbons – Are They Really Best For The Kids?

participation ribbons


I think I’m a pretty empathetic person in general, but I’ve never felt someone else’s pain more acutely than when it’s been my own children. When they’re in physical pain or experiencing sickness I have held them wishing that I could somehow absorb whatever is wrong with them into me, so I could feel it for them so they didn’t have to. I’d do anything to take away their suffering.

And emotional pain is no different.

Your Heart Breaks – My Heart Breaks

One time my son was excluded from a game with his peers after school and he rush to me across the playground, buried his face in me and sobbed. Body shaking, heart breaking, soul destroying sobs of a boy who rarely ever cries.

Part of me wanted to march across the playground and unleash the white hot rage I was feeling towards the other children. The other six year olds involved. But obviously I couldn’t do that. The other part of me, the bigger part of me, just held my crying child while my own chin trembled and I fought back tears because if he hurts I hurt.

So I get it. I absolutely understand not wanting your children to feel these things, because their pain is so hard to bear. I can very much relate to the impulse to bulldoze through any negative experiences my children have. 

Life Isn’t Sunshine and Rainbows – And That’s Okay

Anger, disappointment, rejection, jealousy, embarrassment, the whole range of negative emotions are all are perfectly normal part of life. And we need these things. Life is light and shade. We wouldn’t have any context for happiness if we were never sad. If we were just happy all the time no matter what. How would we even know? How would be value that feeling if that was just what normal always felt like? Continuous, meaningless, bliss. Honestly that sounds like the beginning of some horrifying dystopian novel.

I’m not suggesting we purposefully expose our children to negative experiences to “toughen them up”, but not winning at sport is a normal part of childhood. I just don’t think it’s wise to shield children from that.

It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

So when our children don’t win at sports we need to teach them that it’s okay to not always win. Or even ever win. Some people just really suck at sport. Myself included. And as millennial I grew up with participation ribbons and honestly it was kind of embarrassing getting a ribbon for coming last. Which I did. Every time. Because I suck at sport. And I didn’t particularly care.

And that’s totally okay! Sports really aren’t the be all and end all of childhood achievements either. There are so many other things that your kid could be good at that isn’t sport. And even if they really wanted to do well and they get upset – give them a hug and let them know it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to feel unhappy, to express it, and then eventually move on. 

Intrinsic Motivation

I get that participation awards aren’t just about smoothing over the possible upset children might experience if they miss out on an award. It is also to congratulate them for having a go. Turning up and participating is an achievement in itself. With our sedentary lifestyle a lot of children are missing out on sports and exercise – so anything that encourages them to get moving maybe is a good thing. Though I feel like we should be encouraging children to enjoy sport for the sake of it. For the enjoyment of the sport itself. Not just so they can get a prize at the end.


Rachel Stewart

Rachel is the founder of Parenting Central. She is raising two children, boy and girl, with her partner. Rachel is obsessed prams, car seats, carriers and all things baby. She has worked in the baby industry for several years, for both suppliers and also in a retail setting and has developed a passion for connecting parents with the right products to make their lives easier. When Rachel isn't playing with prams she's enjoys crocheting, drinking coffee (sometimes wine) and spending a little too much time on Facebook.

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