There is a scene from The Incredibles that has always stuck with me.
Dash, whose superpower is extreme speed, wants to try out for track, but his mom won’t let him because she says it would be unfair to the other kids. He tells her, “Dad says … our powers made us special.” She responds, with a sigh, “everyone’s special, Dash.” To which he replies, “which is another way of saying no one is.”
This scene is often used to make an argument against participation trophies. The argument is that, if everyone gets a trophy, if we treat everyone as though they are special, then in the end, no one is really special.
I get that sentiment, and I don’t agree with participation trophies, but it’s important to note that this scene is often presented out of context. At the moment, the superhero family is simply trying to act normal and stay under the radar, but by the end of the movie, they embrace their powers. Even though he still has to reign in his extreme speed, Dash is allowed to join the track team at the end of the movie, and this ending is important. Dash is allowed to shine in the area where he excels.
The problem isn’t that kids are getting participation trophies. The problem is that there just isn’t enough effort to recognize kids (and adults for that matter), for their strengths. Most youth awards focus on academics or athletics, and most professional awards only recognize those who go above and beyond, but there should be more effort placed into recognizing other ways that people stand out. And these tokens don’t need to be big deals or require ceremonies. They just need to be opportunities to let people know they are seen and appreciated.
Over the past week, we’ve received two separate positive notes home from two of my daughter’s teachers. Both notes expressed appreciation for her positive attitude and her willingness to learn. These notes meant a lot to her and me. My daughter struggles with school, and her ADHD makes emotional regulation a huge challenge for her. She’s not the kid who gets honor roll or student of the month, but despite the obstacles she faces, she still enjoys school. These tokens of recognition remind her that someone sees her efforts, and that motivates her to keep trying.
In my classroom, I offer “shout-outs.” These are extra credit points that students can earn for various reasons, such as making insightful comments, submitting exceptional or greatly improved work, or helping a classmate. In the grand scheme of things, these extra points don’t have a huge impact on their grades, but my students still love them. Sure, they like earning a few extra points, but more importantly, they like the recognition of a “shout out” in class, and they even start finding opportunities to recognize one another. Statements like, “Ms. V, Allie deserves a shout-out for texting all of us last night and reminding us about our homework,” or “Ryan deserves a shout-out for finding the evidence our group needed” aren’t uncommon in my classroom. This simple system helps me with classroom management, keeps my students engaged, and gives them the encouragement they need to succeed in my class.
While both of these examples might deal with schools and kids, the same small efforts can make a big difference in the adult world as well. Recent research has suggested that monthly awards like “employee of the month” can be demoralizing, and I personally always felt that they were more about popularity or profit than genuine contribution, but random acknowledgments that communicate that an employee’s efforts are recognized can have the same effect in business that my shout-outs have in my classroom. I’ll never forget the time an administrator praised me over the intercom. It was for something I hadn’t even thought was exceptional, but I rode that praise for months.
When it comes to public recognition these days, it seems that the options are either a participation trophy for everyone or a competition to be the best of the best. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that these attitudes are closely aligned with people seeming to be either very entitled or convinced they’ll never be good enough. Maybe if institutions made more effort to recognize the little thing, and individuals made more effort to notice, we’d have more kids willing to keep trying simply because they felt they could.