A few weeks ago, both my kids got in the mail an invitation from their school to attend an “Albatross Award” ceremony to honor their good qualities. Mr. Bookworm, who brought the mail in, was very excited: “You’re getting awards. This is great.” (I mention Mr. Bookworm specifically here so that you know it wasn’t my cynicism about our school system that affected the kids’ response.)
Both kids were entirely unimpressed. “Everyone gets those,” said my daughter. “They don’t mean anything,” said my son. They echoed perfectly, and inadvertently, Dash, in the movie The Incredibles, right after his parents finished explaining why he had to keep hidden his super powers:
Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.
The above is not the part where I tactlessly insulted my neighbor. That came this morning, when she mentioned she hadn’t seen us at the awards ceremony yesterday. Now, if I hadn’t still been sleep befuddled and without breakfast, I would have figured out that she was at the awards ceremony with her child, so that it obviously had meaning to one, or even both, of them. Not having made that connection, I blurted out the truth, which is that my kids refused to go because they thought that an award ceremony that honors everyone is pretty meaningless.
My neighbor’s not shy. She was offended and put me in my place immediately: “That offends me. My daughter has won this two years in a row. She knows that they recognize her special contribution. This is a special award. You and your kids are wrong.”
I wasn’t about to get in a fight on the street, so I said that the difference, perhaps, was my kids. While her daughter may be striving (how would I know), my kids are not (and I know that for a fact). They quickly figured out how to game the system, and now do the bare minimum to get by. Also, and I didn’t tell her this, my kids have figured out that there is no special virtue in doing the things that ought to be done anyway, such as throwing their trash in the garbage or not getting into fights.
As long-time readers now, I’m a huge believer in praising my kids when they do well, rather than only punishing them when they fail. “Thank you for clearing your plates. I appreciate that.” “That’s very responsible that you did your homework right away.” That kind of thing. But I don’t do a song and a dance and pretend that these things are special. I acknowledge them, but I don’t elevate them to some superstatus: “Oh, my God! You cleaned up your place at the table. Quick, let me give you a medal.” “You did your homework! You are better than any other kid in the world.”
The school would do better to give blunt, meaningful praise at the moment, rather than to concoct some ridiculous awards ceremony that elevates recycling a garbage bag to the level of heroism in battle. Savvy kids understand that there is nothing award-worthy about the fact that they’ve competently carried out the tasks of ordinary life.
UPDATE: Coincidentally, at today’s Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein takes on what he calls the Kindergarchy — our society’s obsessive focus on children and their psycho-social-physical-emotional needs.