My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student

I have a confession to make.

Last year, when my daughter made honor roll, I didn’t rush right out to the garage to slap the celebratory bumper sticker onto the back of my car. Instead,  I quietly displayed it on our refrigerator the day that it arrived in the mail, and reminded her, once again, of how proud she continues to make us.

“Aren’t you going to put that on the car?!” Her sister demanded the moment she saw it, and I smiled and shrugged, lamely disguising my discomfort with that sort of thing.

“You HAVE to put that on your car! She’s going to think you aren’t proud of her,” a friend suggested a few days later. This bothered me a bit, but I still didn’t budge. My kids are pretty grounded. They don’t need me to wear a bumper sticker as an affirmation of my pride, particularly when such recognition is given quarterly for eight years of their academic lives.

“When they make it into a great college, I’ll wear the sweatshirt with pride. If they make honor roll all year, I’ll do a bit of mommy bragging in June. Until then, I don’t need to broadcast every tiny accomplishment or compliment they’re given by their teachers. No one likes a braggart,” I told my friend, who shook her head.  “Everyone has different values, and these are ours.”

Suddenly though, the stickers began appearing on vehicles all over town. Every time we passed a fellow honor student on the road, I felt every pair of eyes in the car shift first to the decorated bumper and then to me: the meanest mother in America.

“Today someone asked me if I even made honor roll,” my daughter mentioned offhandedly one afternoon. “Isn’t it weird how people think you haven’t accomplished something unless you put it on display?”

It is.

Here is what I know: my daughter would have made honor roll regardless of whether or not a sticker was involved, but until a sticker was involved, she never felt the need to mention this sort of an accomplishment to anyone. Now, she’s keenly aware that if she doesn’t display her bumper sticker, it will be assumed that she didn’t earn one. I’m keenly aware of this too, and every time I buy into this shame game even a tiny bit, I’m disappointed in myself.

Singling kids out in this particular way does very little to motivate learning, in my opinion. It does seem to motivate quite a bit of behind-the-back eye rolling and resentment though, particularly among those who were overlooked for rewards despite similar or very different accomplishments. I know: there is only so much time in a day, week, or year. Believe me, I’m not advocating for more rewards. I’m wondering what would happen if we started giving far fewer.

Not that I don’t appreciate the effort. I truly do. I’m very proud of my kids, and I surround myself with people who aren’t afraid to be proud of their kids. Many are, and they pass this fear along to their children. Kids rise to our expectations, though. It seems that there is a difference between taking pride in who we are and what we do and being proud. Fostering humility has little to do with refusing to publicly acknowledge what our kids do well, and I’m acutely aware of what happens when parents refuse to do so. I know that withholding pride is just as dangerous as bragging when it comes to producing humble, hard-working, and confident people. Here’s what I think about though: if the bumper stickers are provoking a bit of rivalry between the kids who live within my home and love one another very much  (and it is), I wonder about the effect this practice might be having on the greater school culture and the community as a whole, where this kind of intimacy doesn’t exist.

I was reminded of the bumper sticker experience several times this week, as I’ve worked with teachers from different schools who are getting ready to welcome students back in the days ahead. I’ve received emails from teachers eager to begin offering reading incentives to kids and requests from administrators to provide feedback on reward programs they are contemplating in the coming months. Several local schools have considered giving prizes like t-shirts or movie passes to kids who reach mastery on their state assessments. I appreciate the enthusiasm that surrounds all of this, and I know that it’s important to reward kids for a job well done, but I’m not sure what efforts like these truly accomplish.

Dan Pink explores the science of motivation in the Ted Talk below. I thought this was a timely discovery. It’s intended for business, but I think the points made might translate well. What are your thoughts about extrinsic rewards like these?

11 Comments

  1. Deborah says:

    Angela,
    Wonderful video and creative way of presenting your thinking on your part. Thank you for a thoughtful presentation of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

  2. nina d says:

    We also have awards in Australia and many of these are for sport. So, if you are going to have rewards, I’m pleased to see academic performance recognised as well. I’m sure Laura’s motivation comes from within and she doesn’t need a bumper sticker to show this. But when in Rome…
    Cheers Nina
    P.S Well done Laura!

  3. What a thoughtful exploration of the bumper sticker dilemma. I’ve never heard anyone discuss this eloquently, until now. 🙂

    • Angela says:

      Thanks for visiting, Stacey! I have to wonder, how would adults react to one another if we started displaying our accomplishments all over our bumpers like this? Resumes seem a bit more discrete…..

  4. I am so happy to read your thoughts, Angela. I was one of the kids who never would have earned the honor of displaying a bumper sticker. Sweaty palms at test time, stomach aches studying, and lousy results to show for my angst. I was simply average with a very bright sister, which didn’t help. My mom often heard, “She’s a great kid, but she’s not like her sister.” I knew that and didn’t need to see a bumper sticker to remind me that I was not an honor student. I was a great baseball player, I was a good friend, I liked animals and summer vacation. I liked to work with my dad in his workshop and we fixed things. I didn’t like counting how many people were ahead of me in my row, before I had to read a paragraph from the Social Studies book ALOUD. Surprisingly enough, I turned out ok, and as a teacher, I really and truly understood how those average (and below) kids felt. Bottom line is: work hard. Work to your ability and beyond. If you’ve done the very best you can, that’s reason to celebrate. Bumpers are for preventing damage, not causing it.

    • Angela says:

      Great points, Sandy. The public school system values very specific things and completely disregards others. We make things peripheral that should be central as well. For instance, the arts are often treated as peripheral subjects, but if we gave more thought to where MOST careers are and will continue to be going….it should be central. Look at all of the wonderful stories you’ve published, how your storytelling and speaking moves audiences, and how your expertise serves other writers. No bumper sticker for that.

  5. Sherry Brinser-Day says:

    Excellent commentary Angela. It’s definitely admirable to achieve and to always trying to be meet your OWN goals, but it has become a status symbol for many, a capitalistic branding of sorts. Many judge others’ worth by the highest numeric measure, the most extreme of goals met, the highest price paid, but there is a cost.

    • Angela says:

      Wow. You really nailed it here, Sherry. I never could find quite the right words, and I revised this a bunch of times to get at what really bugs me about it. THAT.IS.IT. I should also say that the entire ordeal has me constantly questioning when I share good news and when I shouldn’t when it comes to my own kids. Right now, I’m guided by the thinking I shared in the post: if it’s something HUGE that a kid achieves after a good long investment in hard work and many small accomplishments along the way, that’s worthy of public celebration. Those sorts of accomplishments happen a few times in a lifetime, maybe. I like telling friends and especially distant family members our good news, and I don’t want to be stingy when it comes to celebration either. But every academic accomplishment? Every bit of good news? Every compliment paid, phone call received, leadership role earned, every trophy? I think you’re right. It becomes about status and a kind of branding that is intended to set some apart from others. There is a huge cost. Well said.

  6. Sherry Brinser-Day says:

    Well, thank you! I am humbled by your words! I also kinda feel like it’s also reflection of this crazy speedy world we live in where what do, say, buy, and think has no staying power. Living in the moment has morphed into overdone bragging, excessive documentation (who doesn’t have a million pictures on their phone and on their computer), and over-the top celebrations. Who the hell can keep up with it all? I can’t, and that was even before my family life got complicated!! No wonder there’s so much anxiety and depression in our society. It is created by society, companies, and media who say you can and should have it all, so hurry up and have it because the next big thing is around the corner to tease you and entice you to grab!! I could go on and on!! 🙂

    • Angela says:

      I think awards perpetuate that kind of consumption, in anyway. Suddenly, it’s not about enjoying the experience. It’s about the award. And then, even hobbies become competitions. Depression is right.

  7. Sherry Brinser-Day says:

    PS On the flip side, I think we should share your kids’ accomplishments, esp with the people who know and understand the journey it took to get there!!

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