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

Do you agree with this perspective? 

18 thoughts on “Trophy Kids and the Cycle of Artificial Self-Esteem”

  1. Well said. I just recently read a story titled “The Lesson of the Butterfly” which is all about the need to work hard and struggle to succeed. When we make it too easy for children, they don’t learn the skills they need for success in life.

  2. Hear, hear! I think teaching our kids how to weather failure with grace and resilience is one of the keys to giving them real self-esteem. I like how you articulate this. Thank you!

  3. Unfortunately, this has already happened. We aren’t facing it, it’s been done, and is being repeated.

    “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.”

  4. FYI, the kid on the field… eventually he will get the gist of his skill relative to everyone else out there. Even if the adults dont say it… the children will. Kids talk to each other, and in a competitive sport, if some kids arent pulling their weight then the others will usually let them know. Starting at about age 8 or 9.

    1. When my mother showed me this article, I just nodded mt head in agreement. But once I saw the comments, I was baffled at how wrong people were. So let me just say, you’re actually quite wrong. Kids wont tell another if he/she isn’t pulling their own weight, especially at age 8 or 9.
      ‘Why is that?’ you ask. Well, let me enlighten you.
      I’m a freshman in high school who happens to compete in very competitive sports, and I can tell you that nobody will dare call out another if they aren’t doing their part. Partly because we are taught that saying anything that could offend another person is bullying. So why leave it to us to call out somebody else? That’s the coach’s job.
      Oh, and FYI the kid on the field doesn’t always figure out that their skill level in comparison to the others is pathetic. Do you know why? It’s because parents come and tell them that they are doing great even when they aren’t.
      So these “trophy kids” actually become quite a nuisance. They become those kids who don’t do their part in group projects. They become those kids who throw a fit because they didn’t get the grade they wanted on a paper. They become spoiled and quite unpleasant to be around.
      So, it’s up to you as a parent to save us kids the headache and to do your job and to not make you child a trophy child. Sure, give them a high five when they come off the field, but make them earn their high self esteem, don’t just give it to them.

  5. Love this article!! Everything said is spot on!! This happened to me when I was giving horse lessons during the Summer.At the end of the Summer we would do a little horse show for all the parents. I had one child that was just not interested in taking part in any of the lessons or chores of taking care of the horses. It was quite frustrating. I told the parents multiple times that the child was not interested in lessons but they insisted she keep taking them. So, when it came to handing out ribbons and trophies at the horse show, she did not receive a trophy and did not win first prize in any of the competitions.
    She, then, threw a huge tantrum and refused to take part in any of the upkeep of the horses afterwards.
    The mother also, was ferious and demanded her little girl receive a trophy. I told the mother that her daughter was disrespectful, uninterested and unkind to the other children and refused to do any work or practice. Which then resulted in no trophy. I stuck my ground!
    Let’s just say they didn’t come back the next summer.

    1. Good for you GGO, so glad you stuck your ground. I work in a high school and unfortunately, most parents that complain are catered to, leaving the rest of the staff frustrated that rules are no longer rules, lines in the sand are drawn and redrawn, and a generation of kids and parents are obnoxious and have no boundaries.

  6. I think children should be commended for trying their best up until a certain age (I don’t know what that is) and old enough to understand and take criticism.

  7. Suzanne whilst I know that other children speak to each other if not tease and put down others lack of skills, as the article points out quite clearly adults and society are so politically correct that no one points this is out for fear of upsetting the child rather than seeing it as a challenge or way of developing their skills. I know many many children and parents who live in what I call la la land with no sense of reality and fully expect everyone to agree with them because they are used to that. If you don’t you are called unfair, a bully, aggressive in any name you can think of as long as they do not have to look at themselves.

  8. I see a lot of pieces like this and I just can’t ever agree. The writer nostalgically reminisce about how “WE” had to navigate and grow up with disappointment and failure and social rejection and yadda yadda and it “prepares us for real life”. Well, WE are a culture of people with low self esteem and mental health issues. Do we really think that by high fiving a kid on the soccer field for getting out there despite his lack of skill that he thinks he is a brilliant soccer player? The world is harsh and no amount of flattery will misconstrue the reality of life when they get there, but maybe – if we’ve honored their efforts, let them know that they can still be part of the team without being the champion, let them know that their best effort is good enough and entitles them the opportunity to do anything – not just the gifted ones – maybe we open up a world of opportunity and acceptance for them. Maybe we raise a generation of doers who aren’t afraid to step outside of their comfort level, b/c that’s all they are good enough for. Maybe we raise a generation of adults who are able to look at social rejection and say FYou – I’m just as good as you, rather than a generation heavy in self loathing, b/c they aren’t as popular, talented, beautiful…whatever as those rejecting them. They will fail and be disappointed and there is nothing we can do to protect them from that, but we can teach them that that is not the end. That they have self worth even if they aren’t the best,. that they are valued and should value themselves. Narcissism stems from low self esteem not high self esteem. I can only see benefits of raising a generation filled with self respect and ambition – and I think it’s sad that so many people equate that as conceit – it actually only demonstrates their own comprehension/wounds that if someone is confident there is something wrong with that – they must be conceited, b/c everyone should be limited to “their place”.

    1. Magreen, I’m sorry that life has left you so bitter. I was not catered to, and I DO NOT suffer from depression, angst or mental health issues.

      Yes, trying is an important part of life, but by artificially praising we also cheat the child of the opportunity to say “this just really doesn’t fit me well, can we see if something else is a better fit?” Of course, this is extremely hard to do once the parent has shelled out the couple hundred dollars to get uniforms, sports releases, etc. our society is so sport obsessed that we don’t even try to cultivate the creative side of our kids and allow them the freedom to express themselves through art, music, writing – but of course, those pursuits don’t have a competitive aspect that can allow us to judge their worth.

      Self -esteem DOES come from within; from knowing that everyone has a contribution to this world, no matter their ability or inability – we are all God’s creation and have value just by breathing. THIS is what we need to tell our children!

    2. real strength, success, self esteem and self efficacy are the results of learning the requirements of real work and practicing resilience – parenting out of fear of destroying a child’s spirit out character is not the same as parenting to reinforce real spirt and develop real character. We all seek the best for our kids but are we acting in our child’s best interest or in our own? We can be cheerleaders and confidantes, friends and buddies but in the end we must be parents – not peers

  9. This article hits on a very important sociological issue effecting the people the US. An interesting article, and one that’s, not coincidentally, popular now. This is isn’t a new “phenomenon” and has been progressively getting popular since the end of 1950’s and the start of the “conservative” movement. There is good reason this type of behavior is frowned upon now; we are seeing the limits of social reward in our communities. It is becoming increasingly popular to be someone who builds-up their community and others around them, then it is to abstractly haul in the benefits of labor (stock/money markets) without contribution. Being selfish is becoming more and more difficult to sustain, while the people that’ve been working behind the scenes to build up their societies, are becoming more rewarded.

  10. Couldn’t agree more with this. Developing self-esteem is better during childhood. If they fail, let them try again, and then try again until they succeed and parents’ involvement should be present. Our role as parents is to guide, support and encourage them in order for them to build confidence to try things that they might seem impossible.

  11. Your article is spot on. We are trying to raise our young son to understand that life is not fair and that hard work and effort is the key to earning success.
    Sometimes we feel like we are alone in that arena.

  12. Cheers – article is reality. As parents we MUST help our children learn to navigate this unfair world. They need to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. And, they need we need to be honest with them about those attributes, good or bad, too. Finally, they absolutely must learn all of this early so they can self-advocate as they get older…cause no one is going to do it for them.

  13. Thank you for providing this perspective. Interestingly, this same advertisement caught my eye and engendered a similar sense of incredulity. With 3 small children, I cannot even fathom the time for this type of celebration and I definitely do not think this is a model on par with their existence in the real world. P.S. My maiden name is also Blackerby and my dad grew up in Texas. Small world, I guess.

  14. (1)One perspective: when self-esteem took the place of self-respect and self-worth and “to thine own self be true”, any reason to be self-aware and knowing how to self-evaluate was removed. (2) From another angle – in an age where everyone is ready to claim or place a label on another, it’s reasonable that a counter-balance was devised. The counterbalance of self-esteem. (3) From a third viewpoint – No longer is being a rugged individualist prized – now everyone must learn how to cooperate and work as a team – because there are so many people everywhere and individuals can no longer exceed others, unless they behave/achieve in the top .00001%. (think about all the people in the world and then consider one gold medalist, just one) and are broadly recognised for it. (4) A human becomes motivated to “be the best” when they want it for some reason. How can a child find that reason when his important adults deny that child’s personal “Truth” (I stink, I don’t like it, I don’t care) and instead tells that child that adults deem the performance as valuable and useful (even when it was not). (5) Last perspective: Self-Esteem is another one of those Western “Research-based” control of child’s development theories that actually runs counter to natural processes where children are allowed to freely discover (and that’s another problem, everything costs money now to explore) their own worth and value by choosing and doing activities which interest them. Yes a child should be asked to ‘hang with’ an activity long enough to learn the associated skill-set, but if time has passed and skill has not developed, then it’s likely either the child doesn’t have the ability to acquire it OR it’s not valuable to the child at that moment because of the child’s self-determined reasons. Remeber children often don’t have the vocabulary to fully describe what they are feeling and thinking and that’s when adults are supposed to help by talking about it, by questioning while NOT supplying answers). Adults are there to help inspire skill development, not to pretend they’ve created and then reaffirm the creation of value and worth of the child.

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