Me being tactless, very, very tactless *UPDATED*

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.

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  • David Foster

    One of my nephews was, when he was about 9, subjected to a school video on the general theme “you are wonderful.” He came home and said to my sister, “Mom, how do they know I’m wonderful? They don’t even know me!”

    One theory about all this is that people who go into K-12 educational administration are often those who have a higher-than-average degree of emotional fragility, and project this fragility onto others.

  • Ymarsakar

    It really depends on whether you worked hard to get that award or whether you worked hard just to get the benefits of hard work

    If you had sought out a specific award, rather than certain goals that required the work at hand, then you would feel special or accomplished if you had obtained that award. Or if the award had attached to it some kind of social status or benefit, which you wanted, then receiving that award would make you feel victorious.

    However, if people have ephemeral or pragmatic intentions towarding doing their work, as in doing work just because it needed to be done or doing work because nobody else will do it or doing a project well because you wanted a good grade, then receiving an additional award on top of your original achievement is not all that special, Book.

  • Ymarsakar

    This is the difference between motivation that comes from yourself and motivation that comes from others or awards.

    People that work hard can either be motivated by external or internal factors. Some people work hard because they know no other way. They don’t slack off because they can’t slack off. Even if they were allowed to slack off or rewarded for doing so, they would refuse to do so because internally, they cannot and will not favor sloth over work.

    Those that work hard for external factors, however, will feel satisfied or dissatisfied based upon their expectations of external rewards.

    All humans are susceptible to external influence, but some rare individuals are primarily influenced by internal motivations and rewards, Book. When your best reward comes from your sense of self love and your personal standards of achievement, then awards by external factors matter less and less.

  • Ymarsakar

    People that like welfare are the proto-typical example of those influenced primarily by external punishments and rewards.

  • Helen Losse

    When I earned my BSE, I was taught that “nothing succeeds like success.” And while it is true that these awards are silly, there is a child for whom they are the world. Sadly, “no child left behind,” means, we test and test and test, which results in failure for some and boredom for others (like Bookworm’s kids).

    Surely, bright, normal children can be taught that there is a spark of excellence in the dullest, stupidest, most disruptive child among us and that we can sit quietly by when the teacher honors what he/she can find of a step toward that goal.

    As I left the halls of my high school, I overheard the valedictorian say to the salutatorian, between you, me and X, we took everything from here that matters. I am happy to report, that was not so.

    These awards may be the only positive reinforcement a given child gets during the entire school year. Some children don’t have parental support. This is not about the best and the brightest, who get praise in small doses every day.

    Would it be better to hand out small praises all year long? Yes. “Savvy kids understand that there is nothing award-worthy about the fact that they’ve competently carried out the tasks of ordinary life.” But for some children, it simply doesn’t work that way.

    Kindness from both teachers and peers is very human. And how to be human is a good lesson for all children.

  • suek

    An _Albatross_ award???

    I always understood that an albatross around the neck was a really bad thing…why in heaven’s name would they choose a name like that? “Wow Mom!!! I won the albatross award!”…meaning someone is a dead weight on someone else????

    Am I the only one who got whopped between the eyes with that particular award title?

    In one school my kids were in, the advanced kids program was called CIGNET. I always thought that was cute – I don’t even remember what the acronym stood for, but in my mind, it stood for cygnet…ugly ducklings…who nevertheless someday would turn into swans!

  • Bookworm

    I made up the name, suek. It actually has a different, but equally alliterative name that, had I used it, would have given the anonymous game away.

  • suek

    >>I made up the name>>

    Well…that’s a relief! But with the elementary school crowd, you never can tell!

    Hmmm. Maybe your made up name was a bit Freudian???

  • Bookworm

    That fake name did pop into my mind with remarkable ease….

  • Mike Devx


    Your argument appears to be: Any child desperately needing recognition must be recognized. Therefore, we’ll make the act of recognition meaningless for all the others.

    Wouldn’t it be better if simple kindness from a teacher, and a few words of praise, were enough for such needy children?

    So that awards of acheivement actually meant that something unusually significant had been achieved?

    When I taught high school math, I was criticized on my official evaluation for not providing enough praise for effort. It made me ashamed. I was not ashamed by the evaluation itself, but rather the realization that this was actually true. I would add that in the North we don’t praise nearly as much as is done here in the South, and I simply had not acculturalized.

    But I learned to give praise for good effort, and it appeared, as far as I can tell, to suffice. Must we give AWARDS of excellence as well for simply trying?

  • Brigette Russell

    Good post. Reminded me of when I was a parochial school teacher years ago and some at the school wanted to get rid of the annual academic awards because they made the kids who didn’t win them feel bad. Oh, brother.