(KS) Priorities out of balance

Kids today get such mixed messages about their responsibilities in life. On the one hand, we prepare them for standardized tests while they’re practically still in the delivery room, snipping off the umbilical cord and handing them a Number 2 pencil. On the other hand, we protect them from reality tests in ever-increasing numbers:

Gone are the days when a kindergartner dropped a handful of party invites in the classroom cubbyholes of their closest buddies. Today, if anyone is excluded the invitations can’t be handed out at school. The idea that protecting kids from rejection is crucial to safeguarding their self-esteem has gained momentum in recent years.

Take Valentine’s Day: At some schools, a second-grader can’t offer paper valentines or heart-shaped candies to a short list of pals and secret crushes anymore. They give cards to everyone or no one at all. Or sports: In many towns, scorekeeping no longer happens at soccer or softball games played by kids under 8 or 9. Win or lose, every player in the league gets a trophy at the season’s end.

As with many child-rearing trends, some parents and educators see wisdom where others spot foolishness. Many see a mixture of both.

Can you imagine how confused a child would be if he got the importance of high-stakes tests drilled into him in school all day, then went to his softball game and got a trophy for scoring no runs? High stakes testing pressure may have reached detrimental levels in some schools, but the removal of all stakes in sports and popularities contests could have as far-reaching and negative an effect.

(Cross-posted at The Education Wonks.)


  1. Giving out invitations to only some of the children in a class is cruel and quite rude, as is the whole Valentine’s card to a select few thing. No one would go into work and announce across the cubicles that they were having a BBQ for a few close friends. Invites to a classmate’s party have nothing to do with being “rewarded for a job well done” and have everything to do with the playground politics of kids who are, by their very nature, immature.

    Emphasizing the value of playing a game rather than winning to younger kids makes sense. It would also do a lot for the parents to refocus on playing well – especially those who grow increasingly shrill when their team isn’t winning. My uncle was thrown out of a soccer game for threatening to hit the ref. Yeesh! His kid was 10. Who cares if they win at that age! I watched a bunch of 7 year olds play soccer once and they scored more by luck than design. How can you reward that?

    I see the study of the format of an exam as an exhortation to play well – not to beat the other guy. And while a school might “win” the individual students are not singled out for praise or exhortation to do better – at least not in public.

    My favorite line from that article.
    ”If you focus an entire school system on doing one thing, it will likely do it well,” said state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a persistent critic of the way Bush has used the FCAT. “The question is, is that a good thing?”

    Yes – if it’s reading, writing, math and science.

  2. And forcing kids into the company of other kids they’d rather not socialize with is what? evidence of high-mindedness? Making it clear to kids that they’re free to make any choices as long as those choices have been vetted by people who’ve appointed themselves guardians of compassion, fairness, sensitivity and broad-mindedness will result in kids who come to the conclusion that, as long as you’re compassionate, fair, sensitive and broad-minded you’re perfectly justified in forcing your opinions on those in no position to resist? Now there’s a lesson that needs reinforcement.

    Come on, what’s referred to as sensitivity and cooperativeness is a barely-concealed effort to coerce children to aspire to that noble stratum occupied by those the children should aspire to emulate. Thanks, but the traits that these kids are supposed to learn at the point of a metaphorical bayonet in the ass are the sorts of traits that are only learned when taught by example.

    And just to interject an observation about the ethical value of moral education by coercion, the one trait that always looms large for me by its absence is humility. In all this group-oriented, cooperative, nurturing, sensitive, caring, non-competitive instruction the notion that there are times you ought to keep your mouth shut, your opinions to yourself and mind your own damned business is entirely absent. What is clearly implied, when not stated explicitly is that no issue is out of bounds if you can construe some kind, any kind, of involvement and that involvement, imagined or real, justifies the imposition of your values without regard to their utility or relevence.

  3. I grew up not-being-invited to parties and not-receiving-valentines-from-everyone.

    I survived. And I dare say I was better prepared to deal with the inevitable rejections of adult life than kids who are taught that everyone HAS to like them.

    (Frankly? There were kids I went to school with, that had I been invited to their parties, I would not have wanted to go. I suspect the “not being forced into the company of those you’d rather not socialize with” goes both ways)

  4. My neice is in a soccer league that doesn’t keep score. After every game she can tell you who won and who lost – even though they don’t keep score. She knows how many goals she scored,blocked etc. and who scored the most goals on the opposite team. People are naturally competitive. We all keep score in our heads regardless of the rules. It is pointless to say that everyone is a winner. Everyone doesn’t win. Sometimes you lose. It doesn’t do “The Children” any good to give them false information when they are already aware of the facts.

  5. M. J. Wise says:

    The valentine’s day card and party invitation rules were standard fare when I was in kindergarten (at a private school) in 1989. I never felt overly shielded – kids always find new and innovative ways of being cruel.

    I don’t feel though that schools should be obliged to run the Ayn Rand School of Reality though and let abject rudeness and cruelty rule the day, especially in the name of “prepping kids for reality.” Look up the site Raven Days on google.

  6. I wonder how often some kid has “solved” the requirement to invite everyone by quietly passing the word that certain people will be turned away at the door if they dare to show up. If masking cruelty does anything, it will make it more cruel.

  7. Schools don’t require that kids invite everyone to their birthday parties–only that they don’t hand out the invitations at school if they are excluding people.

    This seems like common decency to me. My public school had this rule in effect in 1986 and no one gave it a 2nd thought because it was considered rude to flaunt party plans in front of the uninvited.

  8. My wife was a teacher for a year and isn’t any longer. One of the reasons she is not is because of this utterly insane administrator she had.
    The administrator, after observing her, complained that “time outs lower the kids’ self esteem” and that if my wife was “just nice to the kids” then they’d like her and she wouldn’t have any discipline problems.
    When short in-the-room time-outs are “out” what else do we have?

  9. An now we also don’t give an award to the valedictorian? No one is at the top of their graduating class? How long are we going to continue to protect these kids from disappointment??? Not meaning to be cruel, but they better get used to it really quick!

  10. Richard Nieporent says:

    The Yankees played Boston in the playoffs yesterday. It was a hard fought game with the lead going back and forth but finally in end both teams won. The results for the other 14 games were the same. For the 15th year in a row since the Supreme Court declared in a 5 to 4 vote that everyone is a winner all 30 teams made the playoffs. Fans are on the edge of their seats wondering if once again we will have 30 co-world champions this year.

    In other news the suicide rate has continued to increase. For some unknown reason large segments of the population feel depressed.

  11. Oh, come on.

    These kinds of policies have nothing to do with the kids and everything to do with the adults who find them so wonderful, introduce them to the schools and defend them as if they’re producing worthwhile results.

    Supporting, advancing, enforcing these sorts of policies is evidence of moral superiority on the part of the supporters, advancers and enforcers. Whether or not they do anything for the kids or even if they hurt the kids, is immaterial or at least, secondary.

  12. My oldest child, while still elementary aged, worked hard to earn a medal at scholastic chess tournaments, and after years of practice managed to win a trophy. She was thrilled, and showed it to a visiting friend. His reaction: so what? He had a shelf full of big trophies from his public school. Later at his home when I told his mom how impressed I was with her son’s achievements, she dismissed it, explaining every player got a trophy at sporting events.

  13. Seems all those who dissent have had no arguement with the fact that stadardized testing is out of control. The point here is we need some balance. You can’t be so deadset on getting highest grades, when they aren’t allowed to feel special for any other reason.

    Some kids are smart, some are athletic, others are popular. When are the non-academic kids allowed to shine? ps. I was neither athletic or popular, I got over not being invited to parties.

  14. You have to teach kids to be polite to other people and one of the key parts of that is not hurting others unnecessarily. Whether or not you personally got over not being invited to parties is irrelevant to this – you shouldn’t have to deal with people flaunting the fact that you were not invited. This has everything to do with common courtesy, something that is increasingly ignored by children and adults alike.

    Students do well on tests because they work hard and should be rewarded for that. If they play well in a game, they should be rewarded for that. But good behavior and common decency should be stressed as much or more than winning for the sake of winning. What victory is there in winning if you cheat (for example)? You can take pride in trying, even if you don’t win. Likewise, kids shouldn’t be encouraged to be proud of winning when they play poorly or put little effort into the win. A win against a weak opponent isn’t much of a victory and proves nothing about your skill.

    Do your best this time and do better next time – that is what kids should be taught. This is the most effective approach to competition.

  15. Walter E. Wallis says:

    If it’s good enough for the teachers, it’s good enough for the kids.

  16. Sorry Ivy, I don’t have to teach any kid anything. But you didn’t mean to suggest that I have a responsibility to teach kids to be polite but that we all have a responsibility to teach kids to be polite. As a society.

    No we don’t.

    Teaching kids manners and ethics and the importance of not hurting others unnecessarily is the job of the kid’s parents or such substitutes as there may be. It’s not my job, taking on the role of proxy for society, and it’s not your job as a teacher. My job, as society, is to, as nearly as possible, mind my own business and intrude only when one person infringes the rights of another. Despite the attraction of forcefully elevating those of lesser moral character or those who pray to the wrong god, experience has shown that the government that governs as little as possible, but no less, is the government that infringes least on the rights of the citizenry.

    Your job, as a teacher, is to teach kids the basic skills and facts they’ll need to take their place in society and be productive members of society. Since the evidence suggests, and endless complaining supports, that just covering the basic skills and knowledge is a pretty tough, nee impossible task, what possible justification could there be for diluting your efforts to do what you have no business doing to begin with and aren’t in much of a position to do effectively even if it were your responsibility?

    You feel the need to teach kids good manners? Then do it by example. You want to teach kids to be polite then practice politeness and teach politeness by example. Display those qualities in action. That’s a much more convincing demonstration of their importance then either nagging or patronizing, and phony, egalitarianism.

  17. Walter E. Wallis says:

    cxmmc, my chinese is a little rusty – where do you put the patch?

  18. Setting up a system of rules that allows appropriate polite behavior and punishes rude behavior is essential in the classroom. I’m not talking about posting the 10 commandments. But all children need to be taught to behave properly and respectfully when they interact with others.

    You know, one of the best things about childhood is that you can screw up and the consequences are relativly minor. You and be rude and mom yells at you. You can forget to turn in homework and get a lower grade. Fast forward 20 years and that rudness can get you fired. Your forgotten assignment can get you fired. Your lack of ability to work with others can get you fired. In short, your mistakes are a much bigger deal. Isn’t it better to teach kids to behave appropriately when they’re young? Why shouldn’t schools reward appropriate behavior and prohibit rudeness?

  19. That all sounds nice but that’s not what’s going on here.

    Making polite behavior attractive by practicing it isn’t quite the same thing as handing out sports trophies for being present during the event or requiring the kids to practice an egalitarianism that makes no sense by sending Valentine’s cards to everyone. How do you expect kids to learn polite behavior which is, after all, a voluntary expression of mutual respect by twisting the kid’s arms?

    If anything, these sorts of senseless “everybody’s a winner” policies teach the lesson that if you’ve got the power you set the policy no matter how ridiculous the policy is and further teach that it’s a whole lot better to be the policy setter then the policy settee.

    Why shouldn’t schools reward appropriate behavior and prohibit rudeness?

    Shouldn’t there be some reason to think schools can be effective at teaching politeness before doing so becomes policy? There’s no consensus on how to teach reading, and plenty of illiterate graduates to show that it’s being done wrong far too often, yet modifying student behavior is so obviously within the scope of a schools mission and so simple to accomplish that policy can be dreamed up, largely, on the fly?

    Come on, how about a little sense of proportion.

  20. Yes, kids do invite new ways of being cruel. After my 2nd grader attended the birthday party of her class… er… “alpha female”… said female announced to the class that my daughter was only invited because her mother insisted she invite the whole class. This hurt my daughter way more than if she just hadn’t been invited.

  21. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Thanks for the clarification, cxmmc – but wouldn’t that hurt?

  22. Indigo Warrior says:

    There are some things which schools (at least public schools; private are another matter) should never involve themselves. Sports are one thing; so are parties, Valentines, Halloweens, and other social rituals with little or no academic value. Whay can’t the parents organize such things on their own?

  23. Schools sticking to academics would make too much sense.

    When I was a junior or senior in high school, around ’72 or 73, the school would occasionally have shortened classes so that the entire school body could attend a mandatory “pep rally”. This consisted of sitting in the gym watching the cheerleaders go through their practice routines to music.

    I once asked the vice principal about the purpose of the pep rallies, since they seemed a complete waste of time to me. He replied, “You just don’t have any school spririt.”

    “I don’t even know what that is– what the hell is school spirit?”

    The VP just waved me off and walked away. After that I decided that pep rallies were merely an extra opportunity to step across the street for a smoke.

  24. Bart wrote:

    Schools sticking to academics would make too much sense.

    In the context of the public education system, sticking to academics doesn’t make as much sense as the pep rallies and all the emphasis on sports.

    Compare academics and sports.

    On the one side you have clearly defined, easily-measurable goals that carry immediate rewards for success and serious penalties for failure. In case anyone’s not clear on which one this is, it’s sports.

    Then there’s academics in which the very notion of goals is anathema and excellence is treated with suspicion where it isn’t denounced, either in students or teachers..

    Compare the relative value placed on the professionals.

    There isn’t much doubt who the best coach is in the state; they keep meticulous records about that sort of thing. But who’s the best math teacher in the state? The best reading instructor? Is there even a way to find out? Does anyone care that the relative skills of the professionals is an unknown quantity and there doesn’t seem to be much movement in the direction of changing that?

    It’s a rhetorical question.