Whether you’re a parent, teacher, administrator, coach or youth pastor, if you are around kids, you’ve probably seen students experience emotional or mental illness. It may not be severe, but I bet you’ve seen kids plummet into some level of anger, depression or disillusionment over the last few years. Sometimes, this happens because a kid is simply experiencing a chemical imbalance. Often, however, it’s due to the false world we adults have established in their lives.
May I illustrate with a news headline from this past week?
“School Principal Cancels Honors Night to Not Hurt Feelings”
A principal in Massachusetts recently canceled his school’s Honors Night, saying it could be “devastating” to the students who worked hard, but fell short of the grades they needed to be honored. The principal of Ipswich Middle School, David Fabrizio, notified parents last week of his plan to eliminate the event, which is a great source of pride for the recipients’ families. Unfortunately, the principal also feels it could hurt the feelings of those who don’t maintain a high grade point average. And it appears the goal today, in so many schools, is to make sure we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. We want all kids to be happy and feel as though life is fair.
I get this. The only problem—it’s not a good long-term decision.
Think about the long-term consequences of this decision. First, these young teens now begin to expect life to be fair: If we all can’t get awards, then no one does. That’s just not how life works; it’s certainly not how employment works. Second, it removes their need to cope with loss: No one was recognized as excellent, so none learn to handle situations where they don’t get the spotlight. Sadly, this is not even remotely similar to the world they’re about to enter as adults.
Here are three fundamental problems I see in adults and awards nights:
1. We assume the students are doing it only for the award.
What about building an inward motivation built on the satisfaction of simply doing something with excellence? Instead of ribbons and trophies, it’s about fulfillment.
2. We assume they can’t navigate a loss.
What about cultivating a resilient spirit that makes kids who don’t get invited to Honors Night determined to make it next year? Ambition is essential in adulthood.
3. We assume we have no other way to reward their effort.
What about the need to affirm hard work in ways besides competing with and conquering peers? Parents don’t need a ceremony to encourage effort.
In my book, Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults, I share a principle I try to live by:
The further out I can see, the better the decision I make today.
In other words, when we decide to cancel an Honor’s Night, we need to consider how it impacts kids over time. For the short term, everyone feels better. In the long run, however, it fails to prepare kids to be good adults and leaders. In addition, we fail to groom good leadership qualities in ourselves, by removing the hardship of making tough decisions and debriefing a loss with a kid. We can do better.