Activities at which I excel:
- Standardized tests/logic puzzles
- Being direct
- Using big words/spelling (see: writing/talking)
- Apologizing (see: being direct)
- Preparing combinations of pasta & veggies
- Working hard
- Letting my heart be moved by love
- Dancing enthusiastically
Activities that challenge me:
- Running/athletics/keeping my weight down
- Impulse control
- Keeping a clean house
- Being tactful
- Wrapping beautiful presents
- First impressions
- Knowing my left from my right
- Maintaining a reasonable volume
- Dancing well
I am aware of how jerky it is to start a blog post with a list of things I’m good at, but it’s what I started thinking of this morning when contemplating one of the media’s latest obsessions: Whether or not it is good for every child to be relentlessly praised throughout their childhood. They tend to oversimplify the phenomenon into “giving everyone a trophy” and only occasionally deal with what I think is the most important piece of this topic: That learning who you are, what you are good and bad at , and where you need to put your effort is one of the truly beautiful things that can happen during adolescence. It takes guidance and mentorship and attention, which is why there is a great temptation to skip that hard part and just give everyone a trophy.
Between singing and testing, I had two fairly straightforward ways to earn praise when I was growing up: sing in public, or fill in bubbles on a standardized test. I learned before I was out of my teenage years that these things were blessings, not virtues. Being good at something did not make me a better person. Having a lovely voice was no different from someone who had lovely eyes.
At my fifth grade award banquet I received a nice award from our local DAR for accomplishments in studying American History (that my family history made me the furthest thing from a Daughter of the American Revolution was an irony that was not lost on me). Everyone got an award that night, but the one I remember the most is the penmanship award. I suddenly felt squeamish – they were recognizing everyone in the class, and the best they could do for this student was penmanship?
I don’t begrudge them giving everyone an award. I hope that this student took great pride in the neatness of her work. Maybe this was something she consciously strove for. I hope that this award was granted because people took the time to really see her – to see all of us – and find a particular talent.
We all have things that we are good at. Nothing breaks my heart more than a kid who is a gifted cartoonist being harangued by his parents to work harder at football. Discovering the intersection of gift and passion is the recipe for a fulfilling life. It has taught me where I should put my efforts. Because I am talented at and passionate about music, it would be a sin not to develop that talent. Because my heart is so easily moved, I made a promise to myself years ago that when I was moved to love and generosity I would act on it immediately, not letting it go to waste (there are many people who have received schmoopy “I was just thinking about how wonderful you are!” emails due to this promise).
I can be honest with myself and others about my gifts in column A because I am so acquainted with my faults in column B. People who are good at sports don’t realize how humiliating it can be for kids to not have those skills. I dabbled in sports in high school mostly for the thrill of trying something new. I was epically bad at all of them. I remember when they finally cut me from the basketball team after letting me ride the bench for a while. The gist of the cut was “you are a very good leader and a very hard worker, but you are so bad at basketball that it overrides those other skills”. Deep down I knew that. After I was cut I got into my dad’s early-model Chevy Caprice, let a few tears leak out, and got on with my life.
There is as much a need for effort in column B as in A. I work my tail off at running because it is important for me to be healthy, and because I think it is important for me to have an activity in my life that keeps me humble. I put effort into keeping a clean place because I don’t want the board of health to condemn my apartment. I put effort into teamwork because I know that it enhances my community and makes me a better person.
Sometimes I need to cut my losses, too – presents will never look nice from me, I will never make a subtle first impression. When the abandoned expectations come up against cultural expectations the conflict can be huge. I have spent my entire adult life wrestling with the fact that I am heavier than the culture says I am supposed to be, but that I love food too much to be skinny. I don’t think I will ever stop feeling like a failure because of this, no matter how many awards I win.
A few weeks ago a colleague and I planned a big project that pitted our students against each other. We played it up and did some friendly trash-talking, and then due to poor planning the competition ended in a tie. Plenty of people thought we planned it that way, because “God thinks we are all winners”, but the truth is that we were livid. We worked hard and we both wanted the trophy (that we had bought for ourselves). Yes, having fun is important, but you know what is fun? Winning. Excelling. Being the best you can be. I don’t want an award for having fun.
Yes, we are all winners in God’s eyes, because we are seen as unique children with individual combinations of gifts and faults. Saying we are all winners and leaving it at that isn’t satisfactory. To get to know a person, to truly recognize their gifts and struggles – that is the way to reward someone. So by all means, get a trophy for every child, but look them in the eye when you give it to them and show them that you’ve seen them for exactly who they are.
If you don’t think a penmanship award matters, you should see The Bad Seed.