Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here’s this week’s!
A few weeks ago I ruffled some feathers by criticizing the propensity of schools to ensure that every kid, no matter their character, won the “Terrific Kid” award at least once over the school year. Apparently that raised some hackles, because, as one commenter put it, the terrific kid award has been shown to reduce bullying.

That very well may be true. I have no idea.

But here’s the thing: it’s still lying. Some kids just aren’t terrific. In fact, one of the most common summer pastimes of parents of elementary aged students is linking up their children with new friends. One of my good friends has already received several frantic phone calls from other moms, wanting to get their daughters together for play dates, in the hopes that a new friendship will emerge so that their daughters won’t be sucked in to the negative clique again at school next year.

Nevertheless, I understand the bind in which schools find themselves. They’re given these children from all different backgrounds, many of whom are not given any academic help or structure at home, and they have to corral them, teach them, and keep them in line. Maintaining classroom peace, then, becomes the top priority. They’re really in an impossible situation.

But does the end justify the means? Our schools have bought into the modern “feel-good” philosophy that if children just feel good about themselves, they will work harder and act better. The emphasis, then, must be on self-esteem.

Yet self-esteem has shown to be a pretty poor motivator for academic success. In the 2003 International Math competition, for instance, the United States placed nineteenth out of twenty-one countries for grade 12 scores. But they placed first in confidence about their math abilities! You can feel great about yourself all you want, but if there’s nothing behind that feeling, then it’s all an illusion. Do we really want to focus our schools on illusions?

It’s like that classic scene in The Incredibles, when fourth-grade superhero in hiding Dash bemoans the fact that nobody knows he’s special. “Dash,” his mother cautions. “Everybody’s special.” Dash sneers. “That’s just another way of saying that nobody is.” And he’s right. Tell everybody they’re terrific, and nobody’s terrific.

I’m not against praising students, however. I just think we need to go about it differently. Let’s not choose something positive about that child and then label them “terrific”; let’s instead reward effort. Rename the “Terrific Kid” award the “Effort Award”. And then every week, reward a child for trying at something, whether it’s to do with academics, social interaction, or character development. Instead of praising kids for who they are or innate talent, which kids can’t change, praise them for how hard they try, which kids can. If Jill gets an A+ on an essay and the teacher knows she didn’t try, but Mary earns a B- after struggling so hard, Mary deserves more praise. Too often we let the bright kids coast, and we make allowances for the terrors, but we don’t do anything that reinforces real life.

In real life there are no awards just for showing up. In real life you can’t get away with being mean to people. In real life, you will only succeed if you act responsibly and try hard. By telling kids, “you’re all terrific; you can do it!”, we don’t require students to adopt these necessary attitudes. We may reduce bullying, but we don’t motivate kids towards positive introspection and change. We’re focusing on the short-term, not the long-term.

Any kid can be terrific, but only with a motivator that’s based on real substance. So let’s praise effort, which ultimately is what really matters. That’s the kind of philosophy I hope we all can stand behind.

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