My middle child won an award last week. It wasn’t a Pulitzer, an Oscar, or a Nobel, but it did come with a ceremony and a cash prize. And it did prompt his older brother to whine, “How come he always wins everything and I never win anything?”
I took a moment to remind my son that the previous few months had been more or less a non-stop party dedicated to the theme of: Yay, You Got into NYC’s Top Public High School.
“That’s not the same,” he pouted. “I never get prizes for the things I do.”
I noted that he’d won the handwriting prize at school–twice! (Anyone remember the book/movie The Bad Seed where the mother laments, “What kind of school gives out only one award, and it’s for penmanship!”)
I recalled that he was picked to be featured in an art exhibition where he was the sole child among adults (my husband observed at the time, “I think we’ve got the only artist here with a bedtime.”).
And then I asked if he was just fishing for compliments.
“Of course, I am!” He fumed. “I’m very self-aware, you know.”
That he is. If there were prizes given out for ironic self-awareness in 14-year-old boys, he would definitely make the finals.
In the end, I told him to suck it up, put on a nice shirt, and come with us to his brother’s award ceremony.
Which he did.
Where he behaved impeccably well (he even took pictures).
As we were leaving, the event’s organizer offered to my other children, “And I’m sure you do amazing things, too.”
It was a very sweet thing to say, and my older son definitely appreciated it (my 6-year-old daughter seems utterly immune to the green-eyed monster, so far). But, it did make me wonder about the (genuinely good-intentioned) impulse to “even out” praise–for lack of a better word–when it comes to one child’s achievements verses their sibling/class/team/peer group, etc…
There’s been a lot of talk lately (at least in certain parenting circles) about our “Everyone Gets a Trophy” culture, where children receive scholastic and sports awards just for showing up. Everyone is a winner! Everyone goes home happy!
Interestingly enough, at the same event where my son received his oversized check (my husband pointed out that ours was the only one up on stage actively proofreading his for errors), the keynote speaker was Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, who lectured specifically about her research, demonstrating how over-praising a child leads to under-achievement.
I agree with her completely. And yet, even though I have a reputation for being the Meanest Mommy on the Block (see: Why I Wouldn’t Let My Son Be Labeled Special Needs and My Third Grader Had a Terrible Year – And I Didn’t Do Anything About It), I must admit, I did consider not bringing my other two children to their brother’s ceremony, because I didn’t want them to feel bad that he’d won something and they didn’t.
I’ve written before about the “Why Can’t You Be More Like Your Brother/Sister Syndrome” and the pros and cons of using siblings as role models–or cautionary tales. But, this wasn’t a case of me comparing them to each other. This was a case of them comparing themselves, and one child feeling like he came up short (and/or fishing for compliments).
The fact of the matter is, my middle child chooses to participate in activities that lend themselves to competition and prizes (and losing; because he competes more, he doesn’t just win more often than his siblings; he loses a lot more, too–only nobody seems to mind that as much). My older son prefers more non-traditional activities, like writing and illustrating his own comic book in latin. My daughter is merely happy to remind, “I’m popular, and that’s the most important thing.”
I have long ago resigned myself to the fact that every child will feel he/she got the short end of the stick when it comes to my love/attention/praise. Is there a sibling out there that can claim they never suffered a moment of “Mom loved you best!”? But, reality is such that while all men (and women) may be created equal, not all kids achieve equality in all fields at all times.
At any given moment, someone is going to be a better athlete, a better student, more creative (my oldest son spends weeks constructing intricate costumes for Halloween; my middle one just wants his candy, thanks). Everyone has their strengths and everyone has their weaknesses. And everyone should be celebrated for those qualities which are worth celebrating. (Especially at home. On the other hand, there is very little parents can do about the fact that teachers seem to prefer the kids who actually complete their homework, and coaches favor the ones who can get the ball in the net or hoop on a somewhat consistent basis. That’s just life.)
But when one child is momentarily outshining his siblings on any front, should we be holding back on their hard-won celebration in order to spare their brothers and sisters? Should we make sure everyone feels equally validated at all times? Should we be diminishing one’s achievements for the sake of sparing another’s feelings? And should we be equalizing something that is truly out of the ordinary with a mundane milestone merely to balance the metaphorical scales? Whom does that benefit, exactly?
According to research, it doesn’t benefit much of anyone. Kids know when they’ve really accomplished something great, rather than just earned another participation trophy. And they also know who “the best” is in any activity–no matter how much grown-ups try to convince them everyone is equally adept, or soon will be. (Try asking a kid who won, even in games where no one is ostensibly keeping score. The kids still know.)
And yet, that urge to be “fair” to all your kids is always there. What’s a parent to do?