The Perils of Prize-giving

stripey eraserThe only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing. And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in Matric for ‘Social Awareness and Compassion for Others’. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we all wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time of school prize-givings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prize-giving in the December 4th issue of the Sunday times Lifestyle magazine (04.12.2011). He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation? In two of my previous columns I addressed these issues.

In ‘Pulverising kids with praise’ (Sunday Times 28/03/2010) I considered how easily-earned, excessive praise doesn’t really a child’s build self-esteem from the outside in.

In ‘Your kid is a Loser’ (Sunday Times 12/12/2010) I noted that all children lose some of the time, and some lose most of the time, yet their future success is determined by their persistence over time, not the number of trophies they are currently winning.

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed.  I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to …. “Thanks Mom”, he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prize-giving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning.  Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscars and the Nobel Prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decision. Those tools are called human beings. Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel Prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nobakov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards, makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prize-givings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition: Why Top Ten and not Top Eleven? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three Best Parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prize giving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never ‘got you’?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those,  that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Nonetheless. my award for milk consumption is a good memory, and I am still partial to dairy.

milk carton

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2 thoughts on “The Perils of Prize-giving

  1. Kay Faust

    Judith dearest, Nobody ever boasted of your milk award. Does that mean the prize was insignificant to others? I was given the prize for regular attendance at Cheder – even though I was usually late. I, however have given an award for the best dramatic acting to a non-achiever which was greeted with huge applause by his friends who didn’t know what the award was about, but he did.. “Gee Mrs. Faust, (Hand over his brow) I could have sworn I put my book report in my backpack”. I’m in New York looking forward to getting together with my god-daughter Helen who is here for one week, bringing me tea , digestive biscuits and my favourite toothpaste from London. David seems to be doing better. He is in the Burlington hospital. a 5 hour round trip from my home and I haven’t seen him for about 3 weeks but we talk often. As winter approaches and I hear snow I remember that summer is coming to you and wish you all a wonderful time. Love to all, Kay

    Reply
  2. anne_brand

    I keep thinking of “Pass the Parcel”, the party game all middle-class white South Africans played when they were small. In those days, there was only a single prize – one little delight right in the centre for one lucky, arbitrary person. Now, we wrap a prize in every layer, stop the music deliberately so that every child gets a treat… I just don’t know if the world works like that. But should it be prize givings that teach children this lesson? I don’t know. My children’s school is battling with this very issue at the moment – it is so hard to decide what to award (and reward). Having one child who has received prizes, and another who will probably never fit the mould, gives me two very different sets of thoughts on this issue…

    Reply

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