Tag Archives: achievement

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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Where have all the heroes gone?

A version of this piece was published on the front page of the Sunday Times Review section on February 24th 2013.

It ends with the catastrophic fall from grace, but it starts with us. All of us, ordinary people, fans and followers, the media and the machineries of marketing and brand creation. We take note of a person’s sublime performances and we elevate them to the status of icon, hero, role model, even saint. They become potent symbols of our own yearning for achievement against the odds, for perfection and omnipotence.

And then we lose sight of their humanity and, sadly, very often so do they. In colluding with the myth-making, we allow our celebrities and heroes to believe they are somehow not bound by natural laws and the normal civilities. So we withhold the necessary corrective feedback when they behave badly and then one day it all comes crashing down.

Oscar, Lance, Tiger and Hansie. They have broken our hearts and betrayed our trust. But remember it started with us.

Somebody asked me recently why we even need heroes, but the question is pointless. Heroes and icons are inevitable. Their existence tells us something about our aspirations and something equally important about our needs and weaknesses.

Inevitably, we idealise.  I imagine that there are good evolutionary reasons why we seek larger-than-life heroes as role models. We feel we can learn from their strategies and attitudes, and there is potential survival value in following the path they have taken.

Heroes also make us feel better about the world and we draw inspiration from their triumphs against the odds.

For a while Oscar Pistorius showed us that it is possible to be born physically disabled and still make the final of an open Olympic event. Ashwin Willemse showed us that it is possible to be born in the Cape Flats and sworn into a gang, yet still play for the Springboks one day. Nelson Mandela had tea with Betsy Verwoerd and modelled a degree of forgiveness and reconciliation that was almost superhuman in its transcendence of trauma and bitterness.

Up to a point these are inspiring stories, promises of a better life no matter our circumstances. That’s why there have always been and always will be heroes. And that’s why we tend to cast these heroes as role models.

At the same time, heroes have been letting us down throughout history. Lucifer was a fallen angel while Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Warrior, until he joined the Dark Side. Charles Lindbergh, aviator and all-American hero of the 1920s, turned out to be a Nazi sympathiser, while our own Winnie Mandela, Mother of the Nation, was directly implicated in the kidnapping and assault (and eventual death) of 14-year old Stompie Moeketsi. Lance Armstrong beat cancer and drug testing protocols, and Oscar Pistorius … well, you get the point.

Nevertheless, our blind faith in heroes is often at the expense of the truth. Psychologists say this idealisation has its roots in the infantile defence mechanisms of ‘splitting’ and ‘primitive idealisation and devaluation.’

Splitting is seeing people or situations as either all good or all bad, so we unconsciously choose not to know about the messy and dangerous parts of our superheroes (and ourselves). We let ourselves believe that the villain is the Other and that he’s out there. That’s why our fairy tales are full of the polarities of good fairy godmothers and wicked witches, perfect princes and scheming barons, trusty steeds and bloodthirsty dragons.

Idealisation and devaluation are part of the same process. When we idealise celebrities, sports heroes or people in our own lives, we allow ourselves to know only what we admire about them. But when they disappoint us we are can see only what is spoiled and bad.

All defence mechanisms help us manage anxiety and protect us from what may be overwhelming or distressing. However, a central task of psychological maturity is the capacity to tolerate knowing that everybody, including people we admire and love and people we fear and dislike, and ourselves, are neither all good nor all bad. We need to integrate the difficult feelings evoked by this sometimes unsettling reality.

My thoughts have been prompted by Oscar Pistorius’s explosive and horrifying fall from grace. Obviously, terms and conditions apply to my next statements. We don’t know what really happened and we need to be careful neither to condemn nor absolve until the truth is exposed.

If, however, it turns out that Oscar (first names only for heroes) is found guilty we shouldn’t be that surprised. After all, we have been complicit in the myth-making. What Oscar has achieved is amazing, but there has been plenty of evidence along the way of as darker side. There are the alleged shooting incidents, police call-outs to domestic disturbances, disgruntled ex-girlfriends, boat crashes, risk-taking behaviours and so on. In many articles I’ve re-read about Oscar, journalists describe a whole range of dangerous behaviours and ominous portents but seem unwilling to come to any conclusion other than that these are part of a heroic temperament.

If, however, Oscar turns out to be innocent of any intention to kill, my argument still holds: he then turns out not be the monster we created either, but a man of enormous grit, charm and flawed impulses.

There is another explanation for our tendency to idealise heroes and make them into role models. We could argue, for example, that Oscar was good at running on blades, that’s all. Joost van der Westhuizen was good at rugby, Tiger Woods was a star golfer, Mel Gibson was a compelling actor, that’s all.

That is, we take a piece of known information about our heroes and we generalise it, and that little bit of them we know becomes the all of them. Oscar had courage and extraordinary levels of determination grit, and he was successful. So we assumed this meant he was the good guy in his private life and in the way he treated women, even if there were signs that this might not be the case.

When we are finally confronted with the ugly truth, it challenges the way we have arranged the world in our minds and it disturbs our equilibrium. We thought we knew our heroes, even though we really knew very little about them. We feel humiliated, foolish and angry because we believed in their goodness, even their greatness. Ask Lance Armstrong’s fanboys and public defenders. The final step is as inevitable as it is self-defeating – we move from idealisation to devaluation. We can hear no more good about our tarnished role model.

On the subject of role models and public perception, whenever I witness the latest downfall I find George_Orwell_press_photomyself turning once again to the ideas of the writer George Orwell. Orwell is a role model for how to look at role models, so to speak.

In an essay on Ghandi, Orwell was critical of the idea of saints (or heroes). He wrote ‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent … The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.’

So, too, the worshipping of saints and heroes.

We can still have heroes and objects of fantasy, but they should not be confused with role models.  As the former American basketball player, Charles Barkley, put it, ‘I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.’

For these we should look closer to home. Parents who overcome their difficult pasts to raise sturdy, happy children, teenagers who overcome tragedy to succeed at school, nurses who deliver babies in the middle of the night, the vet who strokes your dog’s head while he passes away – these are the kind of ordinary role models we should draw our children’s attention to.

New York writer Madeleine George sums it up well: “… if you need your heroes to be perfect, you won’t have very many. Even Superman had his Kryptonite. I’d rather have my heroes be more like me: trying to do the right thing, sometimes messing up. Making mistakes. Saying you’re sorry. And forgiving other people when they mess up, too.” 

And the award goes to….

THE 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 wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

It’s that time of year again. The time of school prizegivings, 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 prizegiving, “Which one’s your kid?” in his Headline Act column in Lifestyle Magazine last week. 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?

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 prizegiving 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 Oscar and Nobel prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decisions. 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 Nabokov, 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 and 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.”

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 prizegivings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition. Why top 10 and not top 11? 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 prizegiving 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.