In third grade I won "Best Student". As this was a new school, I hadn't known such an award existed. And considering I went to a very small school with only about eight of us in the third grade class, in retrospect this wasn't such a big deal. But to me, at nine years old, this award proved that I had value. I was special. Top of the class. The best.
But also in danger of toppling far and fast. My primary goal in fourth grade became to remain "Best Student". I somehow needed to be better than my classmates to prove my worth. If I wasn't "Best Student", then in my mind I was nothing. I don't have evidence to prove it, but I suspect this was a factor in the months-long, hospitalization-required gastrointestinal illness that consumed much of the spring semester of my fourth grade year. I was having trouble proving that I was better than. And my body knew it.
When Sam was in elementary school awards ceremonies were handled a bit differently. Awards were passed out in individual classrooms. The standard honor roll and perfect attendance awards, yes, but also character awards. Everyone got a character award. Sam's was usually something to do with "Enthusiasm" or "Cheerfulness" or "Most Hugs", which was affirming and also quite true.
Then middle school hit and once again the school wide awards assembly. I went as the dutiful parent, smiling because I'm "on staff" and supposed to affirm this sort of stuff, but my insides were churning. What if she didn't get an award? Would she think that meant she wasn't smart? That she wasn't worthy? What if she did get an award? Would she think that made her better than? Would she begin to base her value on the achievement? Oh, God, please let her get an award. And also not get one. Thankyouandamen.
As awards were announced, I applauded the recipients for their diligence and hard work. It takes effort to earn all A's and to show up to school every day and to achieve the highest percentage in a particular class. I'm so proud of that effort, thrilled for that giftedness.
But I also found myself thinking of those students who didn't earn an award. What about her? I wondered. Do they know how polite she is? She ALWAYS says please and excuse me and she ALWAYS writes thank you notes. For everything. And that is NOT easy in middle school. Why isn't there a So Polite award? And him. Do they know how friendly he is? Anytime a kid is feeling down and needs a pick-me-up, I know he'll give him a smile. Why isn't there a So Friendly award? And her. She is so brave. She's scared of public speaking but she stood in front of her peers last month and told her story to the entire class. Why isn't there a So Brave award? And him. He doesn't abide bullying in any form. Anyone acts mean to anyone in his presence better stand down. Why isn't there a So Compassionate award?
I'm pleased and proud when Sam earns A's and when she receives awards. She works really hard, and it's wonderful when that hard work is recognized and affirmed. I'm excited for her. But. But.
But it's a tricky balance. The best and brightest versus everyone wins. There's the argument that when everyone gets a trophy, when everyone gets an A we set kids up for mediocrity. We don't help them learn how to handle life's curves. When Sam's softball team won a long, brutal tournament, they expected and deserved their trophy. They earned it. It would've been insulting to their effort had everyone gotten a trophy. When they lost several subsequent tournaments (it's been that kind of season), they walked away empty handed. They knew they didn't play as well as the other teams. Sam knew she needed to work harder. And that's okay, too.
Life is competitive and life is filled with disappointment and life requires hard work and effort. Somehow we need to encourage kids to do their best all the time, whatever their best is, and also help them realize that even when their best is not THE best that they are still valuable. They are still loved. They are still amazing. And they can try again. Or try something else. And give that their best. Even if they don't win.
But I wonder if the traits we admire, the skills we award, are just part of what's most important. The fastest earns medals and makes varsity, rightly so, but the uncoordinated kid who guts it out giving everything he has to finish also deserves a well-done. The smartest earns scholarships and honor rolls, rightly so, but the child with learning differences who studies late into the night to eek out a C also deserves a well-done. The prettiest and most outgoing wins pageants, rightly so, but the shy introvert who overcomes insecurities to smile at someone new also deserves a well-done. Bravery. Kindness. Patience. Compassion. Generosity. Mercy. Perseverance. Determination. Enthusiasm. Curiosity. Creativity. Cheerfulness. Giving lots of hugs. Those are also traits worth awarding.
I want my kids to know that they are loved, regardless of any awards they might win or don't win. I want them to try and fail and try again, to give their best effort, award or no award. They don't have to be the smartest or the fastest or the prettiest or the best at anything at all to have value, to be worthy, to be special. They are valuable and worthy and special already, just by being who they are, by being who God made them to be. I love them and I'm proud of them. No strings or awards or trophies attached.
* As part of this blog I also feel it important to announce that Paul is on target to earn a Perfect Attendance award. For having an unusually strong immune system. And also because this Mama needs him to go to school. Everyday. So. Congratulations to Paul! And also to me!