The danger of rewarding everyone for nothing

My son graduated from kindergarten last year.  

Think about that sentence for a minute. 

Let it sink in. 

Chances are, you won’t see anything wrong with the first five words.  I’ll try to help you with emphasis:

My son GRADUATED from KINDERGARTEN.  

Until his teacher informed me of some official ceremony marking the occasion, I wasn’t aware that Kindergarten was something you actually graduated from.

When I finished Kindergarten, I quietly passed into 1st grade.  There was no ceremony.  There was no special Powerpoint presentation on my year or talk about my accomplishments with any fan fare.  (“Rod really grasped the concept of numbers and the difference between a square and a circle.  We were so proud when he could color within the lines.”)    I merely did what I was supposed to do and moved on.  And I think that is where my problem lies with the graduation concept at Kindergarten.  It’s not that I think an individual graduation ceremony for my kindergartener is going to ruin him.   The ceremony that was put together was very nice and very meaningful for me, as a parent.  What parent doesn’t love to hear about their child’s amazing progress – even if that progress is centered on scissors, paste and crayons.   The problem lies in the subtle expectation of receiving a reward (or acknowledgement) for everything, especially if it’s something he has to do anyway.  I think it provides a disservice to our children for two primary reasons.  One has to do with doing the right thing.  The other has to do with their motivation; doing those right things for the right reason.

  1. Children (even us big children) should always seek to do the right thing, at all times – simply because it is the right thing to do.  Whether it’s at home, school or work – we should always seek to be the model child, student or employee – regardless of who is watching.  We correct the cashier when she gives us too much change because it is the right thing to do.   We work until 5pm because that is when our shift ends, not because the boss is still there to see us.  Our true character is who we really are when no one is watching.   We must fight the urge to only do right when it is visible to others.  We also must fight the expectation to receive a reward for doing what is expected.  
  2. We should not only seek to do right things – we should seek to do them for right reasons.  When someone expects recognition for an action they were supposed to do anyway – it takes away the desire to do right for right’s sake.  My son should not get a medal for mowing the family lawn.  My daughter should not get a prize for clearing the family table after dinner.  My children should not expect a giddy reaction from me when they make their bed or an extra allowance for keeping their room clean.   We all should be encouraged to do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing – not so we can get some award or reward out of it.   Someone should return a lost dog, simply because it is lost – not because there is a $1,000 prize for doing so.   Occasionally you will hear a story of a person who finds a large sum of money and returns it.  The reason it makes the evening news is because of how rare it is.   I am not saying we should not applaud when someone does the right thing.  But somehow we need to train a child (or us) how to applaud themselves for doing the right thing – even if it occurs silently and invisibly, unnoticed by the public or their parents.

It used to be you had 2 graduation ceremonies to attend; your high school and your college.  Both are significant achievements and are worthy of recognition.   Both are  also among the top most boring events you will ever attend in your life.  They are right up there with getting a new license for the DMV and waiting for your car oil to be changed.  For this reason, I chose not to attend my high school graduation.  When they called my name, I was in London, England enjoying a three-month trip.  I tried to escape my college graduation but could not get past my parents desire to make sure it actually happened.   In both graduations, something significant happened.  Students successfully fulfilled the state’s academic requirements and thus were able to “move on” to the next stage in their life.   Though most do graduate from those 4 year programs, it is still a significant achievement and worthy of recognition.  Those who excelled beyond the minimum graduation standards should be recognized for their outstanding achievements.  To graduate Cumma Sum Laude is special and should be recognized as such.

But do we really need a middle school graduation?  Or a kindergarten graduation?   What’s next?  “You came back to school after your summer break” ceremony?   “Great job on doing your homework” pep rally?  You see this same disturbing trend in sports.   Whereas it used to be that only the winning team gets a trophy, now every team gets one.   In my son’s nine-year old soccer league, every player on every team walked away with a trophy.   I can’t help to think that the Trophy industry is pushing this trend. 

As a coach, I found myself contributing to  the “no child left un-recognized” syndrome and even came up with a creative award for every child – even if the child picked dandelions all season.   (Incidently, that child would receive “The Dandelion Defender” award.)  One year, I had a child who just could not get the concept of staying in position.  She was all over the field all the time.  At her age, it was cute.  If she kept that practice beyond 7th grade, she’d be cut from the team.   Her award was the “Visa Card Award.  She was “everywhere she wanted to be.”  See?  Even I perpetuated the problem!

As a parent, I do understand the pressure of wanting to encourage a discouraged (or untalented) child and not hurt your precious one’s feelings.  At the same time, as an athlete, I understand the frustration of working hard to achieve a goal only to have everyone recognized in the same way for not achieving it.

The reality is – not everyone wins.  Not everyone comes in first.  Not everyone reaches a milestone that deserves to be recognized.  And for that reason, we shouldn’t reward them for it.   It minimizes the actual accomplishment and cheapens the experience for those who actually achieved it.

Eventually, our children will have to realize that life isn’t fair.  Their boss will not reward them for having the least amount of sales in the organization.  Their manager will not congratulate them for showing up on time.   The company will not provide an all expense paid trip to Funville for missing expected quotas.  No one is going to hold a special recognition meeting when they open a new account.   THAT is why you were hired and your special recognition comes in the form of a bi-monthly check.   If you do not do what you are supposed to do, do not expect a reward for not achieving it.

Let’s all try to do the right things simply because they are the right things to do.   Let’s all try to teach those in our sphere of influence to do those right things for the right reasons.  It will not only improve our overall work ethic and personal character, it will also help us receive less meaningless awards for average accomplishments.   Do we really need to waste a valuable night of our life receiving a “Dundie award” for simply showing up or having a pulse?  The reason the Dundie awards scene (From the hit sitcom “The Office”; Season 1, Episode 2) was so funny is because it was so ridiculously true.  As a culture, we are trending towards rewarding everyone for nothing.

By the way, if everyone would just comment below on how this is the best blog you have ever read, it would be appreciated.  After all, you don’t want to hurt my feelings, do you??

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

“And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.” (II Thessalonians 3:13)

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About Rod Arters

As a former youth worker, business owner, school teacher, coach and inmate, Rod has the unique ability to relate to almost anyone in whatever situation they are in. His thought-provoking blog about life, mistakes, faith, hope & grace has been read in over 175 countries. A popular writer & speaker, Rod draws from his deep well of biblical knowledge and personal pain to encourage others along the broken journey to wholeness. He hosts an invitation-only private Facebook group for men (called the Man Cave) and enjoys helping others find Hope in the midst of their painful situations. He currently resides in Columbia, SC.
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7 Responses to The danger of rewarding everyone for nothing

  1. Deb Scarfo says:

    Great post, Rod!

  2. Great thoughts. “This is the best blog I have ever read!” Happy? 🙂

  3. myinsolence says:

    I definitely agree. I was the kid on the soccer team who should not have gotten a trophy. ever. lol. But I quit after 5th grade 😉

  4. Katrina Shoemaker says:

    I am so happy you chose to write about this! It has been a constant thought in my mind for the longest time. I work with children and I constantly see them coming home with trophies or medels just because they are on the team. I personally think that rewarding them for somthing they didn’t even do or for something that is expected could actually hurt them more in the end. It also applies to adults. I think you are 100% correct. We should be doing things because we know its the right thing to do. That is what builds character!

    • Rod Arters says:

      Katrina, thank you for reading and commenting on my blog! I’m glad I wrote something that resonates with you. I think you are right… character is built by doing the right things for the right reasons. Rewards are the by-product! 🙂

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