My twins have completed kindergarten, as of a couple of weeks ago. I figured the class year would conclude with cupcakes and crayons, but, as is becoming my habit when predicting all things school, I was wrong.
“Mommy, are you coming to our graduation?” Grant asked.
“Our graduation. It’s Thursday morning.”
“It’s what happens when you finish kindergarten,” Anne added helpfully.
I rubbed my temples, remembering the pink sheet of paper I’d seen about the events planned for the last week of school. “Ahh. You mean your awards ceremony. Yes, of course I’ll be there.”
“It’s graduation, too, Mommy,” Grant said.
“No, sweetie, it’s not. You only graduate when you receive a diploma or a degree in something.”
“Well, you graduate from high school, and from college, and from graduate school. You get diplomas for all those things.”
Then there was a lengthy discussion about what diplomas were, and what exactly a degree signified, and some peering at the framed ones in our study.
“So you see,” I said, sipping my coffee, “you’re moving from kindergarten to the first grade. Which is fabulous. But you’re not graduating. And of course I’ll be at your awards ceremony.”
Throughout this speech I kept thinking it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t recall why. This is certainly the first time I’d ever had to explain anything like this to kids of my own.
Thursday morning, Mark and I went to the awards ceremony. (I still categorically refuse to call it a “graduation.”) All four kindergarten classes were in the gym. That’s eighty-something kindergartners, folks.
And they all got at least two awards.
When it became clear that the teachers were calling up entire class rosters in alphabetical order, I turned to Mark and whispered, “Can you even call it an awards ceremony if everyone gets an award?”
He whispered back, “Well, yeah, if it’s kindergarten.”
Then it hit me. Why my speech seemed familiar. It was a line from The Incredibles, after Mrs. Incredible chastised Mr. Incredible for missing his own son’s fourth grade graduation. He said, “It is not a graduation! He is moving from the fourth grade to the fifth grade.”
Watching those kids troop up to the stage one after the other, another moment from the movie drifted into my mind. Dash, in the car with his mother, who was telling him “Everybody’s special.” He slumped and said, “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”
Nobody wants to see their children left out of an awards ceremony, or have their self-esteem crushed, but are we doing right by our children coddling them this way? The much-mocked participation trophies of soccer have made their way inside our schools, and instead of laughing at the concept like we do on the field, we clap politely from our seats.
What happens, then, when we get to the point where there are actual awards, ones that everyone can’t win? How will we have helped our children prepare for the possibility (no, the inevitability) that they will not always be the best by training them to expect accolades for the ordinary? How are we shaping good people by feeding them a steady diet of entitlement instead of expectations? How is this good for self-esteem in the long run?
And what about the children who are actually excelling? We cheapen their achievements by burying them in a long list of pseudo-honors.
I’m not callous, contrary to how this might sound. I am proud of my children, but to be honest, I expected that they would move from kindergarten to the first grade. I’m not proud of that part so much as I am of the things that have happened along the way; things they don’t recognize at awards ceremonies. My heart bursts with pride when I think of how my children have learned to eschew bullies and play with people who include everyone. Or how Grant has learned to read faster than he can talk, or the way Anne now reads with the same dramatic flair she brings to her everyday conversations.
My kids proved me wrong, by the way. They each brought home folders with their awards, and to my shock, a diploma, certifying that they had each completed the course of study required for kindergarten in the state of North Carolina.
All I can say to that is that if the state is spending money to print kindergarten diploma certificates (in color) for every child in the state … well, we need to take a serious look at our priorities.