On Monday, Miss Pink's class had an awards ceremony. Well, "ceremony" is a little too grand of a term, but every nine weeks the school has an assembly and passes out ribbons for no tardies and perfect attendance. Also, every teacher awards five rubber bracelets that correspond to the character traits the school promotes.
Miss Pink got a bracelet for the first two awards days, but there are 20 kids in her class and only 20 bracelets total given out for the year, so I was pretty sure she wouldn't be getting one this time because we all know elementary teachers try to give everyone a turn. I tried not to be discouraging, but when she kept saying she was hoping to win the Effort bracelet, I gently pointed out that it was possible she might not get a bracelet.
"But I MIGHT!" she told me confidently.
Yes, I agreed, she might. But it was okay if she didn't, too, because we know she is trying her hardest and doing a great job at school--her report card even said so. But it might be someone else's turn to win.
And then I wondered if I wasn't programming her to be a pessimist. Like telling your space-obsessed kid that it's very unlikely that she'll be an astronaut when she grows up. I mean, there's plenty of time for life to teach them about disappointment, right?
As it turned out, I was glad I had prepared her, because she didn't win one. And she was okay with it. One of her classmates was mad, she said. "I still am a little disappointed, though," my daughter told me.
I told her it was okay to be disappointed. Then I told her about one of my early experiences with awards.
I was six years old and had just finished the second grade. (I was almost seven, but still a year ahead because I skipped kindergarten.) Our private school had an Awards Banquet at the end of the year, and we got actual trophies (my lucky mom, figuring out where to store all those gold-painted plastic people on pillars). The year before, when I was in first grade, I had gotten a LOT of trophies. That's because the work was so easy for me--I finished a lot of work, and had a high average. But the next year, my best friend Leann (a frequent commenter here) was in first grade while I had gone on to second grade work, which was more challenging for me. She got all the trophies that year, and I fell apart. At one point, I was UNDER the banquet table, crying under the tablecloth because I wasn't the big winner.
My parents were very kind, considering they must have been mortified. I don't remember what they said to me afterward, but I have never forgotten that night. And I don't want Miss Pink to be a poor loser; but more importantly, I don't want her to judge her self-worth based on the awards, accolades, and plain old garden-variety praise that one can receive in school. I did that for a long time. To the point that I was afraid to take college honors classes in case they were too hard for me, and afraid to get a less-than-perfect grade because...well, I didn't know what would happen if I didn't get an A, but I didn't want to find out.
I was addicted to praise and approval--mostly from adults, but there was a grudging respect from my peers, too. As long as I was succeeding in school, I felt I had an identity, that I earned my place on this earth. The good grades did help me get jobs and go to graduate school, so I hope both of my children study hard and do their best. But I also hope they understand something I've learned in the years since I left school:
In real life, there are very few awards ceremonies.
Oh, you might get a raise or a gold watch when you retire. Nothing's wrong with that, but there are people who chase success at all costs, only to find themselves empty when the job plays out. And parenting--can you think of another job which requires you to do so much with so few obvious rewards?
Staying home with my first child was a major shift in self-perception for me. Who was I, now that I wasn't working full-time or going to school? I missed getting a grade or some verbal feedback to let me know how I was doing.
Of course, in the years since then, I have had plenty of days when I was grateful I wasn't being graded, because I would have gotten a big red F. I've learned that what matters is trying your best, even when your best isn't enough to keep you from falling flat on your face, then getting up again. That's what makes a winner, not collecting awards. You have to know inside that you're doing the right thing and that's always worth the effort.
And I hope I am helping Miss Pink to understand that, approximately 26 years earlier than I learned it.