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Praise, pride and envy

This is one of my favorite Family Circus cartoons and has been recirculating on Facebook lately. I think it is appropriate to consider the implications of this caption in light of the interesting discussions spawned by this post and the WaPo article that inspired it.

I seem to be in the minority of WaPo readers who believe that it is okay to have a pizza party with music to reward the students who made straight A's. Most of those opposed to this reward view the party as exclusionary to those who didn't make straight A's and therefore should be avoided. My argument is any reward is exclusionary. That is the point. We honor those who stand out on any given set of criteria. We exclude from honors those who don't. If an award is not exclusionary, it becomes meaningless.

If one reads the comments on the WaPo site, a great many comments begin with the phrase, "My child will never win this award because....." and you can fill in the blank with an assorted menu of phrases. He has a learning disability. She focuses on dance so she doesn't have the time to make straight A's. And of course there are those who don't see why we are honoring those driven "over-achievers". Making straight A's must be a sign of some sort of psychological pathology and we are hurting children by reinforcing it.

Which brings me to the cartoon above. All of these viewpoints are grounded in envy. My child will not get this award so I do not want anyone to get this award. They think that praising one child takes away from another. But this is not an end sum game. Honoring one child for getting straight A's does not take away from the recognition for athletic ability, artistic ability, character development, or improved performance.

Yes, some of the students who do not get to go to the dance will be disappointed. The job of parents is not to shield our children from disappointment. It is to help them learn from that disappointment. You didn't make straight A's. Why?  What would it take to make straight A's? Is the effort required worth the reward of this dance? Is making straight A's within your reach? If not, what is a suitable alternative goal. I will never be an Olympic athlete. That doesn't mean I think we should not hand out Gold Medals to those who are. Instead of shooting for the Olympics, I will try to get myself in good physical condition for the benefit of my health and I will cheer and clap loudly for those who are Olympians.

Let me tell you what happens to those students whose parents always told them that those who reach the highest level of achievement really don't deserve to be honored because they must have some unfair advantage. They show up in my college class and tell me their poor performance is due to their work schedule, the demands of being a single parent, their marital stress, etc and I should give them a grade higher than the one they earned because they have these challenges. Every semester I am confronted with at least one student who tells me this. I respond to them that it is unfair to assume that their challenges are somehow greater than those of their classmates and deserving of special consideration. I cannot change grades based on hardship stories.

These students then become adults who look at someone making more money than they do and whine, "That's not fair!" No matter that the other person is smarter, more talented, works harder, or is just luckier. Every inequality is an injustice.

We need to teach our children to be gracious winners. Those who excel academically should be encouraged to help those who do not. Those who excel athletically should help those who do not. Those who excel socially should help those who do not. But we also need to teach our children to be gracious when they come in second, third, fourth, or don't place at all. It is very sad when pride prevents the appreciation of excellence in others. Humility is not the same thing as humiliation.


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