May-June 2007 Selected Content
The Pathetic Award - Sherry Kinser
When my eleven-year-old son, Alex, was in first grade, I attended an awards assembly at his small public elementary school. I had received a notice that Alex would be getting an award. Alex did get an award for completing his homework for a certain period of time. However, he also received a special award, one his teacher said she'd never given out before--an award for empathy. Afterwards, I asked her why she had chosen to give Alex this award. She replied that his concern and understanding toward others was quite important. She thought he deserved an award for this characteristic.
Soon after Alex entered second grade, we started home educating. Once we departed from the public school system, he no longer had the same opportunities to receive recognition for improvement, good deeds and special behaviors.
One day some time later, I was visiting with my sister Carolyn. We were sitting in her living room, and we had been discussing kids and self esteem. Alex and his cousin Savannah were crawling around on the floor playing. Well, Alex was running over Savannah's Barbie dolls with his dump truck and she was squealing, but it was play of sorts.
Carolyn and I were talking about the awards that are frequently given in public school these days, and whether or not it's a good thing. Awards had been given when we attended public school many years ago, but awards were not given to each and every child. You had to work for acknowledgement and outstanding distinctions.
Carolyn hadn't heard the story about Alex and the empathy award. "Alex received an award in first grade for empathy. His teacher said he was empathetic," I told her.
As Carolyn started to ask me more about this somewhat unusual award, Alex crawled over to me. His expression was a mixture of anxiety and disbelief. He rose up on his knees and put his little sticky hands on mine. I leaned down to get a closer look at him. He almost had tears in his eyes, and his voice choked up as he asked, "What? I got an award for being pathetic?"
"No, Son," I said gently as I patted him on the head. "You haven't received the pathetic award yet." I wasn't not sure if he was yanking my chain or not, attempting in his humorous way to elicit a sympathetic response from me.
"Maybe someday you'll reach goals in this area," I told him as he crawled off and resumed running over Savannah's dolls with his truck. I can envision Savannah saying, "That's pathetic," without any trouble at all.
Since that day, the pathetic award has been a running joke when Alex misbehaviors or knows he needs to upgrade his level of maturity. Sometimes when he realizes I've reached my highest level of exasperation, he'll ask me if I'm ready to give him this particular award.
In the four years we've been homeschooling, I've read many articles and books written by educators and child psychologists regarding awards. Some say giving children numerous awards helps promote self-esteem. Others argue that it creates a false sense of self; real life doesn't hand out awards to everyone.
When Alex was in public school, the children were awarded according to the values of the teachers. The younger teachers appeared to incorporate the newer ideals that children should be taught in a nurturing environment, and that included giving all children an award for something if possible. The whole class lined up to get their various awards. The older teachers gave their students an award when they felt the kid darn well deserved one. Not many children received awards in these classrooms. The average child doing an average job wasn't rewarded; it was the kid who had made marked improvement or outstanding accomplishments.
Which awards hold more meaning? Which approach is better in the long run for children? At the time, I felt that all the kids should be acknowledged for accomplishing something, but now I'm not so sure. We didn't get awards or pats on the back when I was in school unless we deserved them. They weren't handed out like pieces of candy. The awards I received throughout my public school and college education meant a great deal to me. Some of them were a surprise, and I didn't know I'd be getting one, but they represented a job well done. That felt good, and indeed, it helped my self-esteem.
So, the moral of the story is ... I don't know. Children do need awards, acknowledgements and a pat on the back. Self-esteem is important as a factor in the way people feel about themselves when they become adults. To be honest, I wish I had been more nurtured in terms of having higher self-esteem, but realistically, we have to play the hand we're dealt--that's life, figure it out!
Furthermore, is it so horrible to award children for their accomplishments, or in fact, just for being who they are? I can answer this one. Kids need to know they're doing a good job.
Alex gets his awards at home in a slightly different way than those he received the few years he attended public school. He receives an internal award from the look of pride on my face and the way my entire body language is directed toward keeping him going as he reiterates chapter after chapter from The Farmer Boy to an adult friend who has stopped by to visit. Our words tumble over each other as the three of us have an exciting conversation about weather, saving plants from frost, money, ethics and the old adage, "Children should be seen and not heard." From there, with him spouting off the whole time, we move right into politics: the government, the Constitution and women's rights. My friend and I don't have to tell Alex that we are impressed with the way he is communicating with us. He knows it by the way we are responding to him.
Alex also gets an award when I inspect the bathroom he's been sent to clean. If it passes my standards, he can leave; if it doesn't, he has to continue. He acquires an award as he learns to make chocolate chip cookies without too much interference from me, and the people who eat them comment on how tasty they are. Even without a trophy or a ribbon, Alex gets an award when he overhears the satisfaction in my voice as I tell someone I haven't talked to in awhile about his latest endeavors and achievements.
He gets his award when he hears me exclaim, "Wow! I never thought about it like that!" I'll peer intensely at him to see if he actually knows what he just said. Oftentimes, I'll step to the wipe-off board and attempt to make a visual representation so I can get a better understanding. I'll get lost in thought as I draw or write out what he has just enlightened me with, and I'll ask him to help me. Sometimes he'll elaborate on his own, taking the marker from my hand as he demonstrates his way of seeing whatever it is we are talking about. The illustration will stay on the wipe-off board for the day, and other people who see it will comment on it. Sometimes they agree and accept Alex's way of thinking, sometimes they don't. These interactions are his awards.
He gets an award as he spends several minutes waiting for elderly ladies who are ambling across the parking lot so that he can hold the store door open for them. He is awarded verbally when they compliment him on his social skills: "What a fine, young man you are. It is wonderful to see a child being so considerate." They tell him that some woman is going to be lucky someday when she is with him. He beams as an adult man quickly steps forward to help hold the heavy door. The man tells Alex he'll go far with the ladies if he keeps this behavior up. Meanwhile, I'm waiting patiently down the sidewalk in the blistering sun, receiving my own awards as I watch my little boy who once won an award for empathy.
Alex recently attended the county fair with his father and some friends. He called me on his way home to tell me about how he hit three balloons in a row with darts and won a t-shirt. But that was only half the fun and half the award. In the background, a crowd gathered, including a young adolescent female who reportedly shouted out encouragement by saying, "You're the man! You're the man!" I can hear the impact that her words had on my son as he tells his story. I think about the awards he's been given in the real world.
These are some examples of the awards that Alex receives these days from adult teachers, role models and even from people he doesn't know. He also has two parents who are extremely proud of him and his behaviors--most of the time.
Last night Alex phoned me from his father's house. He started getting worked up about something. Although I couldn't see the smirk on his face, I knew it was there. He's yanking my chain one last time for this day.
I call him on it. "Working toward that pathetic award again, are you?" I say in my best teacher/administrator/authority/mom voice. He awards me with a giggle.
© 2007, Sherry Kinser