Why I Hate Awards Day

When I was a kid, I won a lot of awards. I was a smart kid and I was pretty well-behaved. So, awards day was a good day for me - the only award that I didn't get on a fairly regular basis was for perfect attendance (see my rant below on this one).

My brother struggled throughout school. He did not get honor roll and he didn't do particularly well in reading or math. Again, no perfect attendance. So while I got to stand on stage with lots of medals, ribbons and certificates, he rarely got anything.

When I was 12, I thought this was okay. After all, I figured, I worked hard.

It turns out that my brother worked hard, too. He and I were just wired differently. It took him awhile to figure it out (his teachers missed it completely) but he was not lazy and he was not stupid; his style of learning was not mainstream.

But he had years and years of being told that he wasn't as smart as other kids. And the one day that it was glaringly obvious to the whole school was on awards day.

Years later, as a parent, I am not a fan of awards day. I realize that it's important to recognize achievement but after sitting through my first one for my oldest child years ago, I realize that the awards don't mean anything. Everyone gets one now - you don't want to leave anyone out - so there are "fake" awards for "effort" and "attitude." I'm not sure what the value of the awards are if everyone gets one.

At the same time, I also think it's not constructive to withhold awards from kids who are struggling because I think it sends a message that they're not valued.

It's a problem, isn't it? On the one hand, giving out awards to everyone lessens the value of the awards in the first place. Let's be honest: only one kid is the "best" in a particular subject. But leaving out kids creates hard feelings and discouragement. So, why do the awards at all?

My kids are (knock wood) pretty smart kids. They do well in school. Today, one will get a slew of awards. The other, probably one of the top kids in her class, will get nothing (or if she gets anything, it will be some cheesy fake award). She and the teacher have butted heads this semester so, despite her academic achievements, she doesn't qualify for honor roll because of her "attitude." I'm not sure what kind of message this is supposed to send the two of them. And to be honest, I'd rather they both get nothing. They're good kids, they know that they're good kids, and no certificate is going to change that. But being singled out as the "bad" kid? How is that helpful?

Neither of them will likely get Perfect Attendance or what I like to call the "send your child to school while sick" award. I never got it as a kid, even though I was fairly healthy. My brother had a compromised immune system which meant that he got sick a lot. So, he never got it either.

There was one girl in my school who received Perfect Attendance from K-12. Yep, K-12. She went to school every day, sick or not. And she got an award for that. That's right, she received a pat on the back in public for bringing her germs to school rather than stay at home. What kind of message is that?

As adults, we are desperately trying to get co-workers who have the flu or worse, H1N1, to stay home. But as parents, we are publicly applauding children who straggle in anyway.

Perfect attendance is not an achievement. In most cases, the child (especially at the elementary school level) had nothing to do with it. Zero. But hey, let's give them a ribbon anyway.

The way I figure, achievements should be noted throughout the year on an individual level. If we're really supposed to be teaching life lessons to kids in school, why not start with awards day? Why not cut it out completely? Most adults don't have "awards day" in the workplace. And you don't have them in college (at least most schools that I've heard of): your award is called graduation - and it's a goal, really, and not an award.

At school, a teacher, a principal and a parent can pat individual students on the back all year long. There is value in simply saying "Great job!" when a kid does good work. And maybe by keeping it tied to the specific child and their actual effort, it means a little something more. My daughter gets to skip her weekly test if she aces her quiz through the week: she's never had to take the weekly test. That's a prize she'll gladly take, as it means more to her than a piece of paper.

We should think about the messages we're sending our kids. It's confusing for them and it's confusing for parents. Instead, we should focus on what our goals are: kids do understand the idea of goals. Why not make finishing first grade the goal, and not simply showing up for school? Why not make learning to read a goal, instead of some bogus and nebulous "extra effort" mark? Why not focus on the quality of books read instead of the quantity (don't get me started on the 100 Book Challenge, embraced by the City of Philadelphia)?

I realize that this is unpopular. As parents, we like the pomp and circumstance. But I don't think it's productive. I think, instead, we should focus on giving kids the tools they need to succeed. And perhaps, instead of a certificate once a year, it's just a little whisper in the ear, "Way to go, kid!"


  1. god.. how I agree with every single word!

  2. I just endured an awards day where my kids, top of their respective classes noted that they "only got recognized for those things the teacher could not dispute." They were sad. My son said, "Maybe I'll start doing poorly and then bring my grades up so I can get 'most improved.'" Epic fail.

  3. I worked hard in school. And I got but one award. I was depressed every prize giving hearing the same names read out over and over , subject after subject. As a child it is so hard to take.... My sons today sat through two hours of awards, and got zilch..... I had a tear in my eye for my youngest who lacks confidence I hate to think what is going on in his mind.

    I noticed too that one of the teachers daughters got heaps of awards today. I wonder if.... no dont go there.

  4. Thank you for the insightful blog. I mostly agree "awards" tend to do more harm than good to children because it gives a signal to them they are worth only based on how well they perform according to certain people's or a certain system's standards.

    I have been reflecting that I myself grew up in a society that runs on a approval-based system, especially in schools. Those who perform well are rewarded and praised, whereas those who are not considered performing well (in the eyes of the system) do not get awards or recognition. I have been conditioned since young to do well in studies to get approving nods and smiles from teachers (and my parents as well). In other aspects of my school life, I have not performed very well such as socialising, and I felt ostracised or marginalised by my peers.

    I like what Anthony de Mello said in this video "Wake Up!" about being free from the approval-based system. I think maturity comes when we all finally free ourselves from the approval-based system, and rest in our true divine identity.

  5. I am teacher, and I find awards days draining. Though some awards are deserved, some are contrived.