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How Bad Were the Awards at Your Child's School?

Since writing the two columns on the "terrific kid" awards, I've received a bunch of emails telling the latest story of woe from different schools. The emails seem to be divided into categories roughly like this:

1. We're upset because everyone gets an award. The grade 8 graduation ceremonies at my child's school took two hours because of all the awards--and one child got 34! Why can't they give out fewer?


2. It's always the bullies and the loud mouths who win the citizenship awards, because they talk loudest on their own behalf. The quiet kids who are just kind in the background don't win anything, and it's infuriating!

Now I homeschool, so I haven't seen this firsthand except through my nieces and nephews and the stories fo my friends whose children are in school. So I'm curious about two things: how bad is it at your school, and what is the alternative?

What's happened during the self-esteem movement in schools, I think, is that schools have decided that the best way to motivate kids is to give them awards, and the more awards the better! It used to be that we had the Math Award and the English Award and the Athlete Award, and that was it. But now the awards get multiplied so that more kids can win awards--although what usually happens is that one child still wins about 90% of the academic awards. Introducing more academic awards doesn't cause more children to win, it just causes one child to win more, resulting in even more trophies that will get thrown out as soon as she moves out.

I can understand the frustration parents have when the same child, or often the same family, wins the Citizenship Awards all the time, but what's the alternative? I'm not sure just passing it around to different kids every year improves the situation. Personally, I'd be more in favour of scrapping a lot of the awards entirely and, to teach citizenship, getting the kids behind one big project you do all year, like raising money for a Haitian orphanage, or writing letters to soldiers overseas, or soemthing. And then, at the end of the year, you have a slide show of what the class has done so that everyone feels like they have been a part of something important.

In other words, I'm not sure the slanted nature of the decisions regarding who gets what award is really the problem. I think it's the philosophy that we need to be giving all these awards in the first place. The smartest kid knows he or she is the smartest kid. Give them the "top marks" award and leave it at that. They need to be commended for that, sure, but it's humiliating when one kid wins 15 of them. And as for all the other awards, what's the point?

Perhaps I'm a fuddy-duddy and I'm depriving children of the thrill of winning something, but I do think we've over-hyped children's achievements. I remember one 10-year-old I know having her picture in the paper for drawing a great picture for Earth Day, that won the district's competition. She doesn't even believe in Earth Day particularly. She did it because she was required to in school. And her picture wasn't even good. It was randomly chosen. But there she was, pleased as punch, to have her picture in the paper.

I have no problem recognizing kids when they truly do extraordinary things, but I don't know that school is the best way to do that. Often churches and service clubs are better at that. I know one boy, for instance, who single-handedly raised tens of thousands of dollars from all the elementary schools in his town to build dormitories for the Kenyan orphanage we support. The Rotary Club ended up giving him an honorary award, and that makes sense to me.

One of the books I'm reading this summer is one my daughter has already read, Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris.

Here's their thesis: we have such low expectations on teens. We think they're all going to rebel, and waste time, and veg in front of the TV, and nothing is further from the truth. Teens can change the world by discovering their gifts and passions and using them for God in these years when they don't have mortgages and families to take care of. I love it! It's something I can totally get behind, and I'll have to give you a full review when I'm through.

I think kids should be doing extraordinary things. I think they should be trying to change the world, or at least their corner of it. They should be grappling with injustice, because kids understand it at a visceral level perhaps in a way better than we adults do.

But giving kids awards for silly things that they should be doing anyway does nothing to encourage this; on the contrary, it just encourages mediocrity. We think kids are extraordinary when they get a B in math! We think kids are extraordinary for drawing pictures for Earth Day, even though it's a school assignment! We think kids are extraordinary for saying please and thank you! And then we wonder why kids think they don't have to try in this life.

I would rather we stop giving awards and simply encouraged kids towards excellence. Yes, let's recognize milestones, like graduating from elementary school, or turning 13, or hitting 16. But let's do it in a way taht encourages them to be who God made them, not that says, "you have arrived. We are proud of you just for breathing." That's not enough.

Not every kid is going to throw themselves into combatting world hunger, but some may. Some may organize the 30 Hour Famine through World Vision. Some may organize a penny drive to buy toys for a missions team going to an orphanage. Some may simply decide to befriend the new immigrant kids on the block. These are important things because they represent character issues, and it is parents and churches who should be recognizing this, not necessarily schools.

So I wish schools would stop with silly awards, and get back to teaching. And then maybe we, as parents, could reclaim our proper role in teaching character and recognizing it and acknowledging it when we see it. That, I think, would make me more at peace with the world.

What's your story? How do awards work at your child's school? Has your child ever done something extraordinary? Has your school ever done anything dumb? Let's talk about it!


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At 8:13 AM , Blogger Denise said…

Our school "did away with" the hallway awards for each grade (Math, Language Arts, Social and Science) and now give out "Win It" awards for Grades K through 6. These are parchments with gold and black stickers for whatever the kid has been involved in like "Terry Fox Run" or "Art Club" etc. My son - who just finished Grade 5, doesn't like this system and would prefer to go back the way it was -- even though he never won one of the hallway awards!

I had a battle with my local school and won it yesterday!! My son received his report card on June 30th. A few days later I picked up the calculator and figured out his average for the last year.... 81%. At that point I asked my boy what the average was for Honour Roll. He thought it was 80 to 89% for Honour Roll and above that for High Honours. He hadn't received a certificate to indicate he was on the Honour Roll...

So I contacted the Principal by email and she responded that due to the fact they have so many awards for their 180+ students, the teachers have to submit the list of students who achieved Honour Roll status early on and, at that point, Alisdair may not have qualified for Honours...

Wait a minute -- his report card reflects an Honours status... but he didn't qualify??! I was upset and wrote another letter to the school (and one to the Division) asking how many other kids fell through the cracks??? I told them I thought the right thing to do would be to have a certificate mailed out...

And, wonder of wonders, yesterday -- in the mail -- my boy DID receive an Honour Roll Certificate! After he opened it he told me that he felt like he should send the principal and school secretary a thank you card for doing the right thing! That it meant alot to him because he'd worked hard to try to get one again this year...

My Mother laughed when I told her about all this and wondered if the school thought I was the most crotchety mother in our small town... I said, it didn't matter to me if they did -- If I wouldn't fight for my own kid, who would?? And he yelled "Whoopee" when he learned they'd be mailing his certificate out...(after an email from the principal saying that would be done).

So it's all good here ... in the end. But it was a bit of a journey to get there...

Thanks for your post... I report for our local paper and take pictures and write up the award winners each year and it is very true that it is the same handful of people/families that seem to win... big brother one year, five years later, little sister is engraved on the same plaque...

Guess I won't have to worry about all this next year as I am sending my daughter to Kindergarten and keeping my son home to begin homeschooling at Grade 6 level (to combat bullying) -- but that's another comment/story!

Saskatchewan Mum


At 9:29 AM , Blogger Tonia said…

The sad thing is that many parents don't really feel like they have options. I know some say you can always homeschool or send your kids to a private school but that is not always the case. My husband is very vocal to me about his complaints with the school system but he will not agree to homeschooling and we can't afford to send our kids to a private school.

Most of the parents don't try to change things. Weather it's because they don't care, don't have time, or because they don't believe there is anything they can do. Our kids suffer as a result.

We reward the students for doing what they should do, which is really a silly, but the worst thing we do is hold back the kids that can do more. My children are not allowed to check out books from the school library that are more then half a grade point above their grade level. It doesn't matter that they can read 2-3 points above their grade level (the schools own test reflect this). If they finish their work before the other kids they are expected to sit at their desk. They can check their work but that often doesn't help them fill enough time so they instead they spend the day bored. If my kids have to miss a day at school and do the work at home it takes them and hour to do a DAYS work. That tells me that a LOT of time is being wasted.

On top of that teachers can keep their jobs weather or not they preform them well. As a result our schools are filled with incompetant teachers. It seems like we have a nice little club here. You don't really have to do the job but you will get decent pay and really good benifits regardless.

Our educational system needs a complete overhall. However politications and school adminstrators will never agree to that until the people finally speak loud enough with their votes.


At 10:53 AM , Blogger Gretchen said…

I have a problem with people whining because their wall-flower child didn't win an award for something
"because the loud-mouths and bullies" were more willing to speak on their own behalf. Guess what? That's life. Sitting around waiting for someone to notice you gets you nowhere, and that's as true in life as it is in school. I was one of the kids growing up who had a big personality. I was in no way a bully (I liked everybody!) but I was a talker, a friend-maker, and a do-er. That got me noticed because I was able to hold a conversation with my peers and with adults. That's a gift to an extent, but it's also a skill that has to be learned and honed. If you sit on your duff waiting in the corner for someone to pick you out and tell everyone what a great job you did then you're going to get passed over time and time and time again. That's your fault for not doing anything on YOUR OWN BEHALF. I think it's ridiculous when parents come screaming and whining into the schools because Little Janie is too
"shy" to be able to talk for herself. Guess what? THEY'RE NOT HELPING HER. She will NEVER learn to talk for herself if her parents don't BUTT OUT and let her learn to fight her own battles!

Maybe the kids who are "louder" or "chattier" or more "boisterous" are the ones who get the recognition because they've earned the RIGHT to be RECOGNIZED by DEMANDING it?


At 11:51 AM , Blogger Sheila said…


I know what you're saying about the more outgoing children. They are more likely to succeed, and is it wrong to recognize that? Probably not, although it should be known that all the kids already know these are the "popular" ones. I was a relatively dynamic child in school, too, and everyone knew that. I didn't really need an award to tell me that.

My issue is more the reason for the award. It seems like often we are awarding kids either for showing up and doing what's expected or for some innate personality trait, like being outgoing, or being very smart. At some level these things should be recognized, but are they really the most important? I think rewarding effort and character are far more important, but schools don't do these things well, as Denise showed.

Denise's awards that she talked about are quite typical, and I'm not sure what they really accomplish except to celebrate mediocrity.

And Tonia, I know what you're saying about your children's reading level. That's why I pulled my daughter out of school, too. All I can say is give them books from home to read in the library, and encourage them to write stories when they're bored. It is such a waste, isn't it?


At 8:11 AM , Blogger Tonia said…

Shelia I do give my children books from home and the public library. I also let them write stories, keep a journal, and keep the craft area stocked. It's just the idea that bothers me. The teachers know the kids are ready to move ahead but won't let them do it at school. They are paid to teach, not hold them back.

I also want it understood that I know how hard the job is. I worked at our local school for 5 years. It is hard to keep a class of 20 (or more) moving forward. I just believe we are really messing up if we have to hold back the kids that are ready to move forward. Is it really any wonder that our students keep falling behind?

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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