Awards and Graduations: Is the Bar Set Too Low?


It has taken me several weeks to decide that I had to write this post.  There are going to be people who disagree with what I’m about to say – feel free to comment.  I’ll delete any comments that contain obscenity or direct attacks on other commentors, but otherwise the floor is yours.

John was invited to an awards dinner at his middle school.  The invitation specified semi-formal attire, so Michael and John were in ties and I was in a dress and heels when we made our way through the school hallway along a paper “red carpet” along which student paparazzi stood with cameras.  We found our places at one of the tables set up in the gym and I pored over the program listing the students who would be recognized.  I didn’t recognize any names or faces, although it was immediately apparent that there were students from all three grades present, not just eighth-graders.  I asked John how many of the kids on the list were in his Advanced Placement classes.  None.  I started to become suspicious.

As soon as everyone had been through the buffet line the ceremony began.  Each teacher (or their designated substitute) came on stage and read a statement about why they had chosen a particular student to receive this award.  After the first three or four presentations I was having a hard time keeping the shock off my face.  I looked at Michael, and his eyebrows were raised so high he looked like he’d had a bad face-lift.  Even John seemed a bit puzzled.

One girl got an award for “using good table manners in the cafeteria”.  I wish we’d been seated with her instead of the girl sitting across from me.  She’d just leaned down, put her mouth on the edge of her plate, and scraped tuna casserole in with her fork.  At least she used a fork.  A boy a couple of tables away was dressed in a tuxedo and rhinestone-studded sunglasses (indoors, at night).  He played games on an iPad throughout the entire ceremony, except when his name was called.  He received his award after a long, enthusiastic speech by his teacher about how proud she was of the progress he’d made this year.  Evidently at the beginning of the year he refused to do any assignments, take any tests, or even answer direct questions.  Now he would “usually give things a try”.  Hmm.

Then there was the girl, all smiles on the way to the stage, who had been nominated for an award because she’d started actually going to her classes instead of just hanging out in the school hallways all day.  Seriously.  She got an award for that.  John’s award was for improvement in choir.  When he started sixth grade he was very unsure of his voice and would hardly sing above a whisper.  By the end of eighth grade he was performing short solos quite well.  I appreciated his teacher singling him out for recognition, but John would be the first to tell you there are many students who deserve an award in choir more than he does.  Kids who’ve taken private lessons, competed on a national level, performed in community theater, and been accepted to performing arts schools.  John just does choir for fun.

There were seventy-five awards given out that night.  I can remember only two situations that actually sounded like something that should be recognized by a catered awards dinner and a speech.  One was a sixth-grade girl who’d given up an hour every day to be paired with a special needs student and help them with gym class.  That sort of compassion certainly deserves recognition!  Another was a girl who had stepped in and defused a bullying situation before it could get out of hand.  The person being bullied wasn’t even a friend of hers – she just saw the right thing to do and did it.  Again, that sort of behavior deserves as much recognition as possible.

Eighth grade graduation was earlier this week.  Of course I went, and was proud of John and happy for him.  But are graduation ceremonies necessary every time kids switch schools?  Kindergarten graduation . . . really?  I clapped like crazy for the five students who made straight As throughout middle school, but then they gave a perfect attendance award to a young man who had not missed a day of school since first grade.  The principal told everyone assembled how wonderful it was that he had come to school even when he was sick.  I turned to the mom next to me and said, “We can thank his parents for all the times our kids have gotten sick.”  Of course his parents were right behind me!  Oh well, maybe my comment will give them something to think about.

They had all the eighth graders come up row by row to be recognized and receive their “eighth grade diploma”.  The audience was instructed to hold their applause until the end of each row, but of course there were many parents in attendance who could not manage even that small measure of self-control, and had to shout, scream their child’s name, and clap . . . which kept the parents of the next child in line from hearing their son or daughter’s name called.  Who got the loudest and most disruptive response?  The girl who got the award for showing up for class.

Michael and I talked about it later, and when he told me the current graduation rate in our county’s public schools is about fifty percent I thought, “This graduation will be the only one a lot of those kids get.”  And that is tragic.  But will setting the bar lower – rewarding kids just for “showing up” and “trying” help?  I don’t think so.  We educate our children to make them productive members of society – to prepare them to support themselves and their future families.  I’ve never had a job where “showing up” and “trying” are good enough.

Of course this is a concept that applies to many more situations for parents today.  There are soccer games where no score is kept so no one “loses”, baseball games where kids swing until they hit so no one is “out”, and high school graduating classes with fifty valedictorians so no one’s self-esteem takes a beating.  Are we doing these kids any favors?  Or are we harming them by not preparing them for the real world, where people lose jobs, fail classes, and get hurt?  Where do you stand?

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18 thoughts on “Awards and Graduations: Is the Bar Set Too Low?”

  1. YES! All of that is so, so true. I wrote a post about this a month or so ago, and I absolutely agree with everything you said. I want my kids to know when they are doing a great job, sure, but I also don’t want mediocre behavior called out as exceptional, because that breeds delusions, AND it breeds jerks. I managed a whole generation of people who truly thought they should be rewarded and praised every time they did anything. Anything at all. It was exhausting and counterproductive.

  2. slow.clap.

    You know I love this post — I told you, it’s like Chris Rock …”You don’t get credit for the things you’re SUPPOSED to do!!”

    I loved this line from The Incredibles, and I think MJ referred to that in her post …..”They keep coming up with ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is truly exceptional ……”

    What happened to SETTING THE BAR HIGH??

  3. I definitely agree that I don’t think we set the bar high enough these days. When I was in school you got awards if you worked hard or did something to truly earn it.

    I do think some recognition is good because it is positive reinforcement… i.e. for the girl who started going to class all the time, but I don’t think it needs to be done at an awards ceremony.

    My friends and I (mind you we are all in our mid to late 20s) are often appalled at how some kids act today… with their lack of discipline, their lack of wanting to do anything in school, their laziness, and their overall lackadaisical attitude towards everything. It wasn’t like that when we were kids, which is probably why we all try our hardest at everything we do and get to upset when people are recognized for their mediocrity (I know that sounds so snobby, but I really don’t even know how else to put it).

    Thanks for writing this post! Good to know that there are others out there who still think that we need to set the bar high!

  4. Angie, my son is closer in age to you than I’d like to admit (;-)!) but I still remember his elementary age soccer team getting trophies…for being on the team. They had a good season, but they were grade school kids, not Pele or Mia! They deserved a pat on the back, or a high five (not invented yet), but not trophies.

    Our oldest daughter was on a team (soccer) that won every game they played for two years. Which did them no good whatsoever the day they finally met their match. They could have won the game, but they had not encountered adversity for so long they didn’t know how to handle it. That was an important lesson.

    No matter what the expectations are, human nature is to rise (or fall) to the level at which they are set. Important lessons of persistence and learning work ethic are necessary for the development of maturity.

    It has become commonplace to provide awards for those who do not rise to the level of exceptional. Those achievements should be applauded, but in a less flashy manner. Teachers have a big impact on students; just their praise or acknowledgement of progress would have brought warmth to my junior high heart – and it would have motivated me to continue to reach for the real bar. Have they lost that vision of their own influence?

    My youngest daughter just received a award in medical school – for finishing a project and paper for an extra credit course she had signed up for. I’m glad to say she recognized the value of the award for what it was: a flourish she could add to her resume. She was truly baffled at the fact that the award existed.

    Angie, this has been going on for a long time. While it is wonderful to celebrate the graduation from kindergarten or eighth grade (we just went to our granddaughter’s graduation from the 3 year old class of preschool!), robes an mortarboards go above and beyond!

    Thanks for food for thought, which is a large part of what makes your blog a joy to read.


    1. Thanks, Leslie! I had to smile at the thought of a bunch of 3yo’s in caps and gowns – too stinking cute! I think I would have been in favor of an elaborate ceremony celebrating successful potty training for each of my boys – that felt like a HUGE accomplishment at the time 😉

  5. To be fair, my high school didn’t have valedictorians because so many students had 4.0’s with AP classes and college classes added in that they held auditions for anyone with a 3.5 or higher who wanted to speak. Three were chosen.

    I agree though — all the kids who get these awards for “improvement in table manners” and “showing up to class” are being done a disservice.

    1. It does make it harder when the graduating class is huge and AP classes are more heavily weighted. I graduated with 600 others, and I know at least the top ten students had a GPA >4.0. Our valedictorian and salutatorian were so close we had to wait for final grades to know which was which! My class rank was sixth, and I would have been appalled if anyone had suggested making all of us valedictorians.

  6. Great post. As you know, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I have sat at too many awards programs, and watched hard working, high achieving students overlooked by all the most improved awards. This does not motivate these students. Administrators at my kids schools actually say attendance awards are important than academic awards.

    1. HA! More important to their paychecks! I suspect that it’s the same deal in Georgia as in Kentucky – schools get $ dependent on number of students present each day. They just want warm bodies to count.

  7. While it’s nice to try to find something good in everyone, the concern is that giving out awards for any reason devalues the awards won by those who truly deserve to be recognized. It’s a hard line to walk and many parents and teachers disagree over things like “participation awards” and what they teach our kids.

    1. Excellent point. I could tell that every teacher presenting an award had put a lot of though into their selection, but I suspect they were encouraged to choose a student that “needed encouragement” over any other factors :/

  8. I’m a mom of kids who struggle. STRUGGLE. And it does feel good to see them get recognized for teeny tiny accomplishments that other parents might take for granted. BUT! In general, I try to be the one who recognizes them and validates them. Their self esteem is my responsibility, not that of the outside world. I think, in general, schools are expected more and more to fill parental roles (for whatever reason), and they don’t do a very good job of it. I don’t want to be a hater, who knows why those poor kids have such a hard time doing what should be “easy”. I love it when a caring teacher recognizes how hard something was for my child, and gives them some extra encouragement, and I think that goes a lot further than some catered stage production.

    1. I’m so glad you commented! I think you really hit the nail on the head with your comment about the schools trying to fill parental roles. The more I thought about it the more that fit with the teachers’ almost desperate enthusiasm during the awards ceremony. They wanted to validate accomplishments for kids who needed extra encouragement, but still felt uncomfortable with the “big production” atmosphere.

  9. I do usually hate awards that are just for the sake of awards. I was majorly annoyed at my oldest’s soccer coach this season who wanted to get trophies for the kids even though they didn’t win a single game.

    Maybe in this case though, since the graduation rate is so low, they are trying to get these kids(and their parents) more involved in the hopes they won’t give up. I taught an at-risk 8th grade class one year and I definitely gave those kids more encouragement/praise for doing the right things- things that had I taught the advanced class down the hall, I would have just expected from them and not made a fuss about- but the kids in my class needed that recognition.

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