Trophy Kids and the Cycle of Artificial Self-Esteem

trophy kids artificial self esteem

Thank you to Joanne Blackerby for this guest post.

There is commonality among the varied approaches, styles and philosophies of parenting and child rearing—regardless of what parenting style or philosophy is practiced or embraced, it is clear that we all want the best for our children. We want them to have meaningful and fulfilling lives and feel confident about themselves. We want them to be recognized as the unique and special individuals we know they are. But how far are we willing to go to protect our kids’ sense of self and self-esteem? Are we willing to risk dishonesty or overpraise?

A recent television commercial caught my eye, advertising disposable pull-on underwear for potty training. The commercial depicted a common family vignette: celebrating a toddler’s success in going potty. The ad caught my eye not because it reminded me of potty training my own kids, but because of the outrageous celebration of the child’s potty experience. When the child makes a successful first flush, a lavish mechanical toy automata is set into motion: it’s like a Disney ride with flying balls and planes and marble mazes, ultimately exploding in the living room with confetti fireworks and “congratulations!” banners. At first watch, I was thrust into brief despair at the thought of my own parental inadequacy. I never celebrated any of my now-grown children’s first potty successes this way.

With my oldest packing for college, my second preparing for high school and my youngest entering fourth grade, I found myself, albeit briefly, aghast and wondering whether my lack of elaborate potty celebration throughout the years meant I sentenced them to a life of low self-esteem.

Toilet training is a natural step toward a child’s self-efficacy and independence and mastering the toilet is a natural progression of growth and development. But are we as parents playing to our children’s ego in the excessive celebration of even the most mundane aspects of growing up? Moreover, what happens when the child experiences an almost inevitable potty accident? What then? Do we give a gold star or trophy for trying to go potty? Do we mention the accident or just pretend it never happened? Is there a prize or at least a medal or trophy for potty effort?

The potty metaphor maybe a bit exaggerated, but the question remains: how do we teach our kids how to manage life without expecting a big band parade for flushing the toilet? If overpraise starts at potty training, when does it stop?

There was a time when kids learned their place in the world through navigating the extrinsic hierarchies of playground rules and peer social groups. There was a time when not all kids made it on to every team, no matter how they tried, and there was a time when kids failed a school project or assignment even if they tried. There was a time when not everything was “fair” (and fairness was really beside the point, because life is not fair). That’s the whole point of hard work and the ultimate need for strong character. Things may not have been fair, but they were true, and failures prepared us all for the realities of life.

Our kids no longer try, try and try again. The old adage has long fallen silent. The standardization of education, sports and even play has made it difficult to know what real and consistent achievement is. Parents circle and hover around their kids wanting to ensure their child’s success everywhere: in the classroom, on the field and on the playground. We have created a direct correlation between self-esteem and success when there is none.

We believe that:

  • Success = High Self-Esteem
  • High Self-Esteem = Success

But what if the success is artificial? Then it wouldn’t it make sense that it would result in artificial self-esteem? A disproportionate sense of entitlement and belief in self?

Consider the child on the playing field that is simply not skilled in the sport being played. He is not interested in the sport, does not practice the skills required. The team suffers at his lack of skill and the coaches are frustrated because they are required to give the child field time. The kid is oblivious to his lack of skill and work ethic because his community focuses on building his self esteem, on constantly boosting his ego, giving high fives all around. This sport is not his sport, but rather than be honest with him his community veils him from the reality of his skill. In doing so, the kids keeps playing, however poorly, stays the season, and at the end receives the same trophy as all the kids on the team, including those who were top-skilled players. The same scene plays out in on other fields, in dance studios, on recital stages, and classrooms. If you never know you are not good at something, then how can you learn what improvement is?

Why are we so fearful of allowing our children to fail? We’re facing a generation of kids who feel good about themselves for no reason.We are raising children who do not believe the rules apply to them because we have abandoned the rules. We want to level all playing fields and the results are lost opportunities for children to discover how to develop their own talents, skills and character.

We reinforce the belief that success is not measured by skill development, effort, hard work and competitive achievement but more and more by “everyone is deserving of praise regardless of effort, skill, or work ethic.” Consider the impact on the child that truly works hard and fails. Failure is a powerful motivator, but it has to be practiced.

Sadly, our own fear of parental inadequacy is nurturing a generation of Trophy Kids: children who expect a trophy or recognition for doing what all kids are supposed to do: grow up. Attempts to keep our children feeling good about themselves are resulting in a generation of self-absorbed children who are quickly losing the capability to see the value in anyone or anything beyond themselves. The “I am special just because” child’s mentality can create a conceited and narcissistic young adult.

If we truly want the best for our kids, we must be willing to admit that they are not the best at absolutely every endeavor. Life is not fair. We must allow them all of life’s bumps, bruises and hurt feelings so they have the honest and genuine opportunity to navigate life’s challenges. Ultimately a child’s real sense of himself will come through the truth and consequences of his efforts, work and commitment to the community around him.

A balanced child is one who learns his success and worth is not just defined by how good he is, but also how he lives goodness.

Joanne Blackerby ( is an ACE (American Council of Exercise) certified Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist, owner of Spirit Fitness Training in Austin, Texas, and the author of Training Effects: Reflections on the Art of Personhood Training. She lives in Austin with her husband and three children.

Image: Jaskirat Singh Bawa

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