Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Bugs Me about Student of the Month

Since I have three kids, I have to sit through three Student of the Month assemblies each year.  At our school, there is one characteristic for each month, and the teachers choose a selection of students from each class for the award. 

Like everything else in childhood these days, everyone gets to be student of the month at some point, whether or not they exhibit any redeeming qualities.  Conveniently, the last characteristic of the year is “citizenship,” so even if your kid can’t keep his hands to himself, finish his homework, or tell the truth, he’s still a “citizen,” and can be awarded thusly.  Our school does not give out bumper stickers, which is good, because there is no way on God’s green earth that I am putting that on my car. 

On assembly mornings, the multi-purpose room is packed, and if you want a decent seat (or a seat at all), you have to reserve it with a jacket or book before school even starts.  Parents are glowing with pride, and shoving each other out of the way to get the best camera angle of their charming child.

The first Student of the Month assembly I went to, there were several students from each grade chosen to speak about how great they were at that month’s characteristic.  Most sounded like this, 
“This is what self-control means to me.  Self-control is what I do when everyone is being mean to me, but I don’t fight back.  Self-control is not tattling when Jacob cuts in front of me in the lunch line.   Self-control brings a smile to my teacher’s face.  I always try my best to be self-controlled, so I will be a success.  This is what self-control means to me.”
What bugs me the most is how artificial these assemblies are.  For the most part, these are decent kids who are being asked to brag in a public forum that is not only uncomfortable, but thoroughly self-indulgent.  I would cower in shame if my kids gave a speech like that (I’m usually cowering in shame because of something they’ve done anyway, so nothing new there.)  There is no community cultivated by these exercises.  Instead, we force kids to wrap grown-up language around an esoteric quality they only understand in concrete terms.  In their speeches, kids say that they “always try to do the right thing,” which is not only patently false, but crazy that we as parents applaud the claim.

I'm all for awarding exemplary behavior, but I think we could do a better job of helping our kids articulate good character traits.  In all the assemblies I’ve been to, there was only one kid who made it real.  He was in fourth grade and I think he was up there for generosity or kindness.  He said, 
“I lost my speech on the way to school and I can’t remember what it said.  But being nice is hard.  I have two younger brothers and they like to take my stuff and break it.  Most of the time I yell at them, but sometimes I don’t.  When I don’t, it makes me feel better and I like them more.  Then we can all play with my stuff and we don’t fight so much.” 
BINGO!  Rock on, little man.   That’s a speech a mom can be proud of.