Last day of school for my 10-year-old daughter was Awards Day. I’ve endured it before. Watching the same 10% called up over and over again for this high grade and that high grade while my very ADHD daughter stone face holds back tears. She’s always hopeful. She holds her breath while the next award is being called. I’ve watched the kids around her sit hopeful, hold their breath, hold back tears. I’ve watched the parents also see their hopeful kids hold their breath, hold back tears. Mary told me a few days ago she’s holding out hope as two of her classmates had voted for her to receive the Words Of Life award, given to the person who speaks kind words to others. I know this is who Mary is. Nope, it wasn’t her award. It was given to one of the kids who got the other 35 awards (not exactly sure how many, but a giant stack).
I can hear you now. “So, you think every kid deserves an award? That’s not real life.” And I say, ‘You’re right, and neither is the award ceremony reflective of real life.” Awards celebrate A’s. The best. The highest. What Award Ceremony proponents forget is that real life and 4.0’s aren’t good bedfellows. Ask anyone in management. Straight A students struggle with team-playing. Struggle with working with the strengths of others. Struggle with being wrong. Let’s just say this right here, failing well is an important part of being an adult. We all fail. We need to learn to fail well. I need to admit when I don’t know something. I need to use someone else’s idea because their idea is better than mine. I need to be second -fiddle because at times someone leads better than I can. I need to accomplish in a less than A+ fashion because sometimes life needs C work.
Failing well is not accomplished by participating in a grand display of your failure, ie Award Ceremonies while you and all your little friend get to see what a loser you are. Setting up artificial failure is not effective in teaching children to learn to fail well. Award ceremonies are artificial failures — they are not reflective of life.
If award ceremonies are trying to encourage kids to try harder, each and every teacher and staff need only to look at the faces, listen to the words after the event and hear what they have managed to pull off by their special event. The kids are talking amongst themselves — saying how they don’t care anyway — referring to themselves as stupid, saying “I don’t like math anyway”, “I’m bad at reading”, “who cares about history”. It would take very little for the adults to notice they discouraged instead of encouraged. Isn’t that what Jesus says. It’s His kindness that leads us to repentance.
The Awards speaker walked up to a mom in tears just after and said to her “You were so touched by my words they brought you to tears?” (No, I did not make that up.) Her words did nothing of the sort. The mom was crying just as many other moms were holding back tears because of watching a child’s hopelessness. The award ceremony at my daughters’ school awarded for attendance. In my opinion, to be awarded for attendance can be non-harmful. What kid has anything to do with whether they are at school on time or not? If the child is dawdling, it’s still on Mom or Dad to get them moving. However, when we award for an A in a class, for some children, their solid C is another child’s A. In terms of work, in terms of struggle, in terms of growth. Grades given privately to the parent and the student accomplish what is required for helping the student understand what needs to be worked on, and in what areas they rock. For some children, accomplishing a B is a sheer miracle.
During the awards ceremony, an award was given for A’s and B’s. I felt her little 4th-grade body relax. Then they explained it for only those who had no more than 2 B’s and the rest A’s. Her whole body tightened. I will say this here. I will NEVER be OK with the school giving my daughter a message loud and clear that she is less than because she got 4 B’s and 5 A’s. I remember people dropping out of college because they received their first B, tying together the idea that a B was a sign they were not ‘college material’. That’s what straight A mentality breeds. It breeds insanity. Many highly successful people have struggled through school, had to retake classes, received help from a tutor. The reason my husband and I both made it through college, receiving our degrees was not that we were award-worthy students, or smarter than the rest. We received those degrees because, despite poor grades, we picked ourselves up, brushed ourselves off, and tried again — over and over and over, retaking classes, getting help, doing what it took until we finally walked across that stage and received the degree. Success occurs for all of us when we can tolerate imperfection, and press on.
As a therapist, I can tell you the child who has always received A’s has a much more difficult time relationally. A few straight-A students have good study habits and their straight A’s come easy — allowing them to help another, listen to a friend, work on sports, however when getting the A is the focus, there is an off-balance that occurs that shows up in life and in the workforce. Straight A can mean the student has not lived with the bigger picture of life in mind. Certain habits that produce straight A’s can also water seeds of narcissism. It’s all about me. We are sending the completely wrong message to a child when we reward what is not good for them. Yes, I am saying for many children straight A’s are not good for them. It can mean that school is the #1 thing when to be a balanced person, school should be maybe #4 or #5 on the list, with God, self-care, care for the family, care for friends and pets, music and physical activities lining up before school. It doesn’t take much to foster the love of learning in a child. It takes even less to snuff it out. I know we can do better than shame children for B’s.
I didn’t mention that the majority of the awards given were for teachers children. Nepotism possibilities aside, even if the 10% of children chosen were truly the best of the best, does it help a child who already knows they are the best due to their continued top grades to be awarded a fistful of best-ofs in front of their classmates? Fostering ‘I’m superior’ does harm — every time. This year Mary received an award for the first time in all her years at Cornerstone. She received an award in Bible. She received that award because memorization is as easy for her as flipping on a gymnastics bar. She could do either in her sleep. What about all the kids who struggled every-single-week to memorize the verses given them? I’m happy she finally got an ‘atta-girl, but part of me felt sick. Sick for all the kids who have tried so hard and now think of themselves as failures when it comes to memorization because they didn’t get the award.
Mary’s teacher had a private, in class award for every child. She chose a character quality that matched each child, told why she chose that particular quality, and read a verse over each child. I love this approach. And I think it’s enough. The Award Ceremony was for children Kindergarten through 6th grade. High school students are developmentally mature enough to understand the grade curve. Grade-schoolers are rigid in their thinking, black and white. Unable to understand much of the grey in life as their brain has not yet developed fully. Why give the message, you are the prize (you 10% you), and the rest of you — losers?
Yes, I talked to my daughter. Yes, I always attempt to provide a framework around what happens at the Awards Ceremony. And still, she is convinced she isn’t a good student. Was today’s piano recital where she blanked out completely related in any way? Or the tears she couldn’t stop? She can’t read music but can play amazingly unless she gets a brain-blank. Statistically, ADHD kids received many thousand times more put-downs than the average child over their lifetime. My daughter went an entire year as an ADHD child with all A’s and B’s. I am repulsed by the adults in her world who can not see past their own rigidity to understand that kids with perfect grades already have their reward. And kids trying hard need to be protected from the message that what you’ve accomplished means nothing. Adults lets change things up. A little brainstorming and willingness for change and together we could do so much better.