Our seventh grade son had tied for second in our school’s science fair. Three days later it was on to the regional competition. He and a friend had garnered second place honors there last year.
At 4:00 Tim’s science teacher called. “Better luck next year,” I heard him say. I hung up the phone and cried.
Now, it had been a very bad week. The call came on the heels of a series of disappointments, some trivial, some not. But none of that fully explains my over-the-top reaction. This is the middle school science fair, I told myself. Your son tied for second. He worked hard. He learned a ton. He even had fun! Why in the name of all that is rational are you crying?
I sat down and prayed. While I found consolation, I came away with no clear answer. Over the following days, I found myself examining the whole realm of competition, of awards and rewards, of recognition, of honor rolls.
Why do we compete? Why do we have awards? What is achievement? Where does encouragement end and vainglory begin? How do we promote diligence? How do we recognize and nurture God-given gifts?
As parents, coaches, teachers, and Godparents, we should encourage excellence across a wide spectrum of disciplines. We should admire virtue, talent, industry, and beauty. But we live in a culture that has turned recognition on its head. We admire what once might have been subject to censure. We often value what is fleeting and overlook or even mock what is admirable.
Pop psychology has added its two cents to the whole conundrum. Sitting in a waiting room not long ago, I flipped through a popular parenting magazine. An article on encouragement caught my eye. Parents, the author advised, should avoid words that smack of judgment when looking at, for example, a child’s drawing. If your child has done a good job, you certainly shouldn’t say so. Rather, you should comment on the variety of colors chosen or the interesting subject matter.
On no account, the author gravely warned, should you use words like good, excellent, or well done.
In a similar vein, a growing number of schools have eliminated honor rolls and spelling bees because there are winners and losers.
Poppycock, I say. And, yes, that does smack of judgment.
This false egalitarian bent distorts a simple fact: In many areas of life, there are objective standards, achievement, and differences.
My friend Sherre is an artist who imbues home, garden, and canvas with color and texture. I pop into her house and see beauty. She has talents that God hasn’t given to me. Everything my friend Anna bakes or cooks is simply excellent. These women have talent, skills that they have honed over many years. The irrefutable fact is that they do these things better than I do.
That doesn’t make me a bad person. As Anna herself once said, it doesn’t even make me a bad cook.
The author of the parenting article never played Little League Baseball. In sports, awards abound. There’s first string and second string. The batting line up. The Most Valuable Player. Newspapers run stats and rankings.
I remember my first experience with t-ball. Tim was four years old. We never won a game, and my son touched the ball once during the entire season. Toward the end of the season, one of the parents took up a collection for trophies.
Trophies? You’ve got to be kidding me!
A large part of my objection stemmed from purely mercenary motives. We had shelled out the $60 for registration, $10 for a mitt, $10 for a bat. Do we really need to ratchet the whole affair up by another ten or twelve bucks?
Then there was the idealist in me. The experience of playing should be reward enough. And anyway did we achieve something? If so, what, exactly, was it? Discovering the location of second base?
In the arena of awards, I admit to being a bit jaded from my years in the Army Reserves. In the peacetime Army, the brass passed out awards for making coffee by regulation. Truly, it bordered on the ridiculous. I returned from a two week training exercise and had to listen to a grown man – a sergeant with many years' experience – complain that he didn’t receive a certificate of appreciation for the work he had done. The cynic in me was dying to say, “That’s called a paycheck.” There was a pervasive mentality that said I should be rewarded for simply doing my job.
I reject this kind of thinking out of hand.
My kids are better students than athletes. Particularly with my oldest son, I have discerned an odd disconnect between what he does well and what honors he receives. Here is a kid with excellent grades and the ability to play the piano with a shelf full of sports’ trophies. The message seems both clear and convoluted at the same time: Here are these things you do well – school, piano. Sorry, but for now they’re really not that important. But soccer? I know, you’ve never come close to a winning season. Yeah, yeah, but trust me, this is what really counts. Take this slew of trophies. The banquet’s Thursday at six.
My third grader recently played the part of Cowboy Sam in a class production of Pecos Bill. I was thrilled to get a note from the teacher pointedly instructing parents not to bring flowers or other gifts to give the actors and actresses. I have attended elementary productions that ended with 8 and 10 year-old girls flooded with flowers like Michelle Kwan at the Winter Olympics.
More to the point, it makes the rest of us look bad! We do this long enough and it becomes normal and expected. And then what do we do when our children truly achieve something? They have come to expect the flood of trophies, the barrage of flowers.
On this topic, Mr. Incredible and I are of one mind. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite movies:
Helen: I can't believe you don't want to go to your own son's graduation.
Bob: It's not a graduation. He's moving from the fourth grade to the fifth grade.
Helen: It's a ceremony!
Bob: It's psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity.
Of course none of this diatribe explains my boo hooing over the science fair. To be continued...