I have a confession to make.
Last year, when my daughter made honor roll, I didn’t rush right out to the garage to slap the celebratory bumper sticker onto the back of my car. Instead, I quietly displayed it on our refrigerator the day that it arrived in the mail, and reminded her, once again, of how proud she continues to make us.
“Aren’t you going to put that on the car?!” Her sister demanded the moment she saw it, and I smiled and shrugged, lamely disguising my discomfort with that sort of thing.
“You HAVE to put that on your car! She’s going to think you aren’t proud of her,” a friend suggested a few days later. This bothered me a bit, but I still didn’t budge. My kids are pretty grounded. They don’t need me to wear a bumper sticker as an affirmation of my pride, particularly when such recognition is given quarterly for eight years of their academic lives.
“When they make it into a great college, I’ll wear the sweatshirt with pride. If they make honor roll all year, I’ll do a bit of mommy bragging in June. Until then, I don’t need to broadcast every tiny accomplishment or compliment they’re given by their teachers. No one likes a braggart,” I told my friend, who shook her head. “Everyone has different values, and these are ours.”
Suddenly though, the stickers began appearing on vehicles all over town. Every time we passed a fellow honor student on the road, I felt every pair of eyes in the car shift first to the decorated bumper and then to me: the meanest mother in America.
“Today someone asked me if I even made honor roll,” my daughter mentioned offhandedly one afternoon. “Isn’t it weird how people think you haven’t accomplished something unless you put it on display?”
Here is what I know: my daughter would have made honor roll regardless of whether or not a sticker was involved, but until a sticker was involved, she never felt the need to mention this sort of an accomplishment to anyone. Now, she’s keenly aware that if she doesn’t display her bumper sticker, it will be assumed that she didn’t earn one. I’m keenly aware of this too, and every time I buy into this shame game even a tiny bit, I’m disappointed in myself.
Singling kids out in this particular way does very little to motivate learning, in my opinion. It does seem to motivate quite a bit of behind-the-back eye rolling and resentment though, particularly among those who were overlooked for rewards despite similar or very different accomplishments. I know: there is only so much time in a day, week, or year. Believe me, I’m not advocating for more rewards. I’m wondering what would happen if we started giving far fewer.
Not that I don’t appreciate the effort. I truly do. I’m very proud of my kids, and I surround myself with people who aren’t afraid to be proud of their kids. Many are, and they pass this fear along to their children. Kids rise to our expectations, though. It seems that there is a difference between taking pride in who we are and what we do and being proud. Fostering humility has little to do with refusing to publicly acknowledge what our kids do well, and I’m acutely aware of what happens when parents refuse to do so. I know that withholding pride is just as dangerous as bragging when it comes to producing humble, hard-working, and confident people. Here’s what I think about though: if the bumper stickers are provoking a bit of rivalry between the kids who live within my home and love one another very much (and it is), I wonder about the effect this practice might be having on the greater school culture and the community as a whole, where this kind of intimacy doesn’t exist.
I was reminded of the bumper sticker experience several times this week, as I’ve worked with teachers from different schools who are getting ready to welcome students back in the days ahead. I’ve received emails from teachers eager to begin offering reading incentives to kids and requests from administrators to provide feedback on reward programs they are contemplating in the coming months. Several local schools have considered giving prizes like t-shirts or movie passes to kids who reach mastery on their state assessments. I appreciate the enthusiasm that surrounds all of this, and I know that it’s important to reward kids for a job well done, but I’m not sure what efforts like these truly accomplish.
Dan Pink explores the science of motivation in the Ted Talk below. I thought this was a timely discovery. It’s intended for business, but I think the points made might translate well. What are your thoughts about extrinsic rewards like these?