Rewarding Kids for the Wrong Things

The following post is republished from NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. We have gone to the effort to bring this piece to our blog because we think that this message deserves special attention, preservation and further dissemination. We hope you enjoy it. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Listen Here: [audio:http://jerrychacon.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/20090808_wesat_03.mp3]

“My grandson has finally graduated. I still can’t believe I have a grandson … much less a grandson who has a diploma. Eli looked handsome in his white cap and gown. He seemed more serious than usual, and in fact, he told me the day before that he was nervous about the ceremony. You probably remember your graduations — you have to walk across that big stage, one by one. The whole audience is staring at you. When they called Eli’s name, he looked a little uncertain. But he walked to the podium, he took his diploma, he shook hands … and then, he broke into that sunny smile that lights up a room.

Eli just turned 5. He graduated from preschool.

Of course, we’ll frame that adorable photo of him standing in his cap and gown. But I’ve been wondering about the ceremony. Did Eli’s preschool do him a favor? Going to preschool is a passage. And we want to give kids a sense of pride and accomplishment. But is going to preschool so remarkable that we want to shower them with pomp and circumstance? And pressure?

I called Leon Botstein the other day. He’s the president of Bard College, in New York. A lot of people say he’s one of the more thoughtful educators in America. And I asked him, What do you think about Eli’s graduation? And Botstein started railing. He said, “We’re applauding children for the wrong accomplishments — any 5-year-old can play with friends and color books. Then we pressure children to value the wrong kinds of accomplishments.”

Get this: Some preschools are teaching kids to color inside the lines of the drawings. Picasso never did that. I know parents who get stomachaches and can’t sleep, because they worry that their 5-year-old won’t get into the best elementary school.

And that’s just the beginning. Between kindergarten and senior year, there’s a blizzard of standardized tests. Advanced classes to give a jump start on college. SATs. My wife is a therapist. She’s treated teenagers who are so scared, because they’re not in the best school. They’re not getting the best grades. They’re not winning enough awards. She’s seen students who are so anxious OR depressed about all this that they’re thinking of committing suicide.

Botstein says here’s what we should be rewarding: curiosity. Creativity. Taking risks. Taking the subjects that you’re afraid you might fail. Working hard in those subjects, even if you do fail. We should reward children when they show joy in learning.

Maybe we should even applaud them when they color the cartoons outside the boundaries. If they say, I love it that way.”

9 Replies to “Rewarding Kids for the Wrong Things”

    1. Janet: I presume you mean "what a difference a year makes". I absolutely agree with you. I felt a bit uneasy then…the robes seemed a little much, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And then, this last year was a year in the Waldorf system…what an eye opener. I am sure I will continue to offer recognition / rewards to my kids that in retrospect will make me cringe, but I will try to keep Botstein's (and the narrator's) comments in mind. Thanks for visiting! — Jerry

  1. Having recently sat through my son's preschool "graduation" this story resonated with me. It sounds like Scott Simon's grandson had much more of a graduation feel than my son's ceremony.

    I do think it is wrong to think of it as a graduation or an accomplishment.

    We treated it like a transition point in their lives. Many of the kids had been together for many years. This was a celebration of that time and experience. It's hard to get all the kids and their parents together. This ceremony did that.

    I agree that it is wrong to treat it as some kind of achievement. After all, there are no grades, no scoring, no indicators of achievement. They are just older.

    But it marks a major transition point in the kids' lives. They are off to new schools, with new adults in charge and need to make some new friends.

    We call it graduation just because that is the easiest label.

    1. Doug: Thanks for visiting. It's been a while and I hope you and your family have been well.

      On your points, I don't, of course, know what your son's ceremony was like. My daughter's ceremony…as can be gleaned from our Flickr ( http://u.jc.vc/wxats ) stream …was pretty close to the one described by Daniel Zwerdling in the NPR piece. In fact, the picture on the NPR site looks pretty close to some of the pictures of my daughter on Flickr — gown, mortar board, and tassel.

      Looking back at my daughter's graduation, I think that a party would have been fine. Sitting in a big circle with families with each kid in turn telling a story about the prior year or their hopes / fears regarding the coming year could have been a lovely closure for that chapter in my daughter, Malena's life. Heck, even a little performance / play / sing along would have been lovely too.

      Instead, Malena's ceremony was accompanied by the graduation anthem…names were called…the kids walked across a long stage…the tassel moved from one side to the other. It made me slightly uneasy.

      As such, I resonated with the NPR piece a bit more that I might.

      In any event, I am not planning to ignore other transitions in my kids' lives…I'm just hoping to not mislead my kids too much as they formulate their own "perspective" on these events in their lives. As I look back, I wonder if all the fanfare at Malena's "graduation" was a bit misleading. I'll probably never know, but I can certainly tell you that I wonder.

      Thoughts?

      1. Your experience sounds much more over the top than my son's ceremony. We didn't have mortar boards, tassels or pomp.

        I think we need to better draw lines between celebrations of achievement and celebrations of transition.

  2. You are so right! I am appauled at kids being rewarded, applauded, given awards for JUST doing what they should. We are creating a nation of people who expect to be patted on the back and given awards, promotions and recognition just for showing up.

    We are taking away kids' ability to develop self-motivation, to gain a feel of accomplishment becase they are satisfied intrinsically by a job well done.

    I'm "only" 40 but I've managed some younger people at work who 6 months into the job expect a raise just for showing up most days.

    No wonder other countries are starting to surpass us!

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