In my last post I talked about my daughter’s athletics carnival.
That day she came home with a sticker that said ‘I ran in a race’. Whoever is making those stickers is making a fortune because everybody there had one. There was no ribbon for getting third in the longjump, but every kid got a sticker that said ‘I ran in a race.’
I realise that this is designed to put the emphasis on participation, rather than winning. But I am not sure why we feel we have to reward kids for doing something that everybody has to do anyway. We’ve created a culture where kids won’t do anything without being rewarded, even if that reward is just a sticker or our praise. The obvious problem with that is that it creates a sense of entitlement, where they’re always looking for a reward, rather than a sense of achievement. But it can also mean that they’re reluctant to try something they’re not so good at, because they’re looking for the gold star, rather than a chance to learn something.
Birdy has a natural ability for Maths, and she was put in a Maths group with some very bright kids. But ever since she heard that her report card last year said she was ‘outstanding’ at Maths, she’s been trying to convince us that she’s hopeless at it, that it’s too hard, and that she needs to go down into a lower Maths group.
I have a bad mum confession to make, we didn’t get Caillie’s maths homework done last week. No excuse, we just didn’t get to it. So last night I said ‘You’ve got to do last week’s homework before we start this weeks.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘but there’s no point, I won’t be able to get it marked.’ So I explained to her that the point of doing maths homework isn’t just to get the smiley face and the sticker, you’re actually meant to learn the stuff. At which point she said it was too hard and she couldn’t do it. So I sat down with her to supervise and when she finished I said, ‘See that wasn’t too hard’. ‘Yes it was, it was way too complicated’. And I said, ‘But you got every question right… How can it be too hard if you got every single question right?’. Well, the reason she thought it was too hard was because she actually had to work out the answer. She didn’t just know it immediately. She’s used to it being easy and that makes her feel clever. Hence she wants to go into a lower Maths group, so she can just know all the answers and feel like she’s clever. And that’s the problem with giving kids gold stars all the time, that feeling is addictive. They become more concerned with the reward, or the ‘clever feeling’ they get from the reward, than the learning outcome.
I’m a bit of a slave driver when I supervise homework. I’m always saying, ‘Is that your best work?’. ‘That’s too messy, rub that out and do it again’. But that’s because I’m a big believer in the idea that the best reward is the satisfaction of a job well done. I would rather do half of it properly, than race through just to finish. So the only reward Caillie gets from me is, ‘Good on you, you’ve finished it,’ or ‘That’s enough, you’ve worked well.’ But you know what, after we finished the exercise, and I pointed out that she got all those hard questions right, I told her it was time for a bath, and you’ll never believe what she said: ‘Oh, No, mum! Do I have to? I want to do more homework!’