Self-Esteem and Schools: Do schools give awards for too many things?Do school awards actually backfire, by boosting self-esteem at the expense of accomplishment?

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!

I homeschool, so I haven’t seen this firsthand except through my nieces and nephews and the stories of 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.

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.

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low ExpectationsOne 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 all teens will 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 that 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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