Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Here's to High Self-Esteem!

Many years ago, I was in a faculty meeting where the chair of the math department was explaining the various choices for math class selection. As part of his presentation, he described how middle school students were either in low, middle or high math groups. More than a few faculty members clearly bristled at these labels. One of our colleagues spoke up to say what many others were no doubt thinking. "Isn't that kind of a harsh way to describe it?" she asked.

Without skipping a beat, the math chair replied, "What would you prefer? Good, better and best?" The laughter in the meeting room just about drowned out his explanation that these names, low, middle and high, were what the kids called their groups, the teachers were just following their lead.

This little anecdote is on my list of greatest faculty meeting moments of all time. Not only because it was incredibly funny, but it points out how adult concerns about preserving the self-esteem of children are often overblown. Much has been written of late about parents who, with the best of intentions, do a disservice to their children by constantly praising even the most mundane of achievements. The argument goes: if we congratulate and award every thing and every child, how will kids ever learn to appreciate what are truly important accomplishments and value the hard work that goes into achieving a goal? How will they learn to distinguish between what is a good what is excellent?And if you have followed any of the Amy Chua madness, you have probably heard a discussion of just how much "criticism" is necessary to "encourage" children to work their hardest and do their best.

After working in schools, I was totally on board with the idea that too many rewards distributed with too little discrimination were not ultimately helpful in teaching kids to be successful students or citizens. And as a parent, I have wondered: At a certain point in childhood, will giving every kid that played soccer a trophy become a problematic strategy as opposed to a form of positive reinforcement? Dave and I have talked on more than one occasion about how we didn't get awards for simply going to t-ball, and we survived, right?

And then Kara was given the "Patriot Award" (named for the mascot not for being one). It's an award given to one or two kids in each class, each month, for academic excellence, outstanding citizenship and/or marked improvements. And Kara won it. Dave and I almost burst with pride. When I told Kara she was getting this special award at the assembly,  all of my beliefs about overindulgent adults slavishly promoting self-esteem went out the window. She was so completely happy and so clearly proud of herself.  I don't know if the whole "Patriot Award," in addition to the many other ways kids are recognized in school, is really  a necessary thing, I hope that it has the desired effect of pointing out excellence in a positive way.  I really hope that by 5th grade the kids aren't so accustomed to this award that it has lost its meaning. But right now, I don't really care about any of these more academic concerns; I am just too proud of my little girl to think beyond this one moment in time.

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