Are We Over-Congratulating Our Kids?

If we celebrate every small achievement, how will they know what hard work means?

I was among the group of standing-room-only spectators as the second hour of my 4-year-old son’s pre-school graduation ceremony began when the whole thing jumped the shark.

Up until this moment, the proceeding could be charmingly described as precociously adorable—with each of the three pre-K classes presenting an individual show of costumed children singing about jungle animals (it is indeed a “Jungle Out There” after the protective bubble of pre-school bursts, isn’t’ it?), future career plans (how about worrying about kindergarten first?), and inventors and inventions (no female inventors were featured, but that’s a topic for another time).

There was a brief intermission just long enough for a costume change, so it seemed, and as the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” began to whine through the air, a procession of pre-schoolers donning caps and gowns slowly and solemnly made their way down the side aisle, each called individually by name and handed an official looking ribbon-wrapped diploma.

“Oh God,” I heard a parent mutter softly near my elbow, “I was hoping they weren’t going to go there.”

But, there they indeed went.

Amid the sea of outstretched arms of iPhones and camcorders, I struggled to poke my head up high enough to see my son as his name was called. He graciously accepted his diploma (which I found out later was a fake prop), and began walking across the stage area to join his fellow “graduates.” Suddenly, I saw his eyes well up with tears and he began to bawl. I panicked. Did he not see me there in the audience cheering him on? Was he overcome with emotion as he stood at the crossroads of childhood, mourning the loss of the past two years of friendships, education, and memories like any sensitive and soulful graduate does? Or was he sobbing at the hypocrisy of a society who over-emphasizes and celebrates the most mundane of milestones in an over-the-top and absurdly formal ceremony?

My son’s tears had less to do with a cultural comment and more to do with being a 4-year-old. (“I missed you,” he said later.) But after reading through a myriad of polarizing views on pre-school and kindergarten graduations, from celebratory to critical, it got me thinking about where I stood on the issue. (Using that last term fairly loosely, of course. It’s probably about as important an “issue” as where one stands on “selfie” etiquette.)

Or is it? As a member of Generation X, the latch-key children growing up without cell phones, social media, or car seats, I often compare my own child-rearing style to my parents’ in an attempt to do better. Not that my childhood was so horribly dysfunctional, per se, but I think it’s natural to strive to improve on whatever I remember as lacking. Couple that with the ridiculously competitive pressure created by an online landscape of community bulletin boards and social media sites of bullying parents pushing their varied anonymous agendas on anyone foolhardy enough to share personal stories, and you’ve got a generation of parents who are basically damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Parenting advice is as plentiful, diverse, and useless as the numbers of celebrity parenting books that come out on the topic each year.

The concept of celebrating mediocrity looms large within the age bracket of parents in which I find myself. There is a current backlash against a cloyingly engaged parenting style that seemed to hit its zenith during the ‘90s spawning a generation of supposedly lazy, entitled, and needy millennials. Well, that’s what happens when you give out awards for participation and forgo spankings, right?

I do sometimes worry about over-emphasizing my children’s’ accomplishments. If I celebrate every small achievement, how will they know what hard work means? How will they know real successes from phony souped-up ones? Should I have opted out of this pre-school graduation? Should I have taken a stand and not allowed my son to participate? Would being singled out as the only boy not allowed to take part in this extravagant parade of mundane mediocrity teach him a valuable lesson about how important it is to wait to celebrate something until it’s worth celebrating? If everything is special, then nothing is special, true?

Unless maybe everything can be special, as long as it’s seasoned with the right amount of balanced perspective on how special it is. An award for participating can be a motivating factor in working toward that bigger and cooler award for winning. My 4-year-old son’s “graduation gift” was a cup of ice cream at the local Baskin Robbins. I didn’t even get him a medium. I don’t want him to get lazy.

After the ceremony, I talked with the other parents and we all rolled our eyes about the caps and gowns. Certainly no one thought of the day as marking a momentous occasion in the lives of their children. At least not in the same way a high school or college graduation would. We took it for what it was—an adorable and amusing presentation of preschoolers who worked very hard for the past few weeks against their own natures of distractibility and impatience to put on a performance to please their parents. And who can argue against the character-building measure of that?

Rachael Koenig is a writer and humorist deriving most of her inspiration from her two sons, aged nine and four, and step-daughter, aged 12. Her site Maxisms contains personal stories and a collection of precocious, snarky and hilarious conversations between herself and her children. 

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