Pardon me while I rant incessantly: Celebrating mediocrity

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Today’s post was supposed to be a revamping of a Dr. Seuss classic. I’ve got the intro written, but when I sat down for a rewrite, I just wasn’t feeling it. Since I believe any parody worth doing is worth doing well, I’m going to let it stew for awhile and see if I can get it right. Instead, I thought I’d share some personal observations from an awards ceremony I attended at my daughter’s school today.

The good news is that we have a high level of parent involvement and participation at the elementary school my daughter attends. The bad news is that all that parent involvement and participation makes it virtually impossible to find a good parking spot for any school event unless you get there at least 30 minutes ahead of time. I was fortunate to arrive early enough to find a spot to parallel park among the other cars using the carpool lane as a makeshift parking lot. Parents arriving just moments after me were forced to park illegally in the field across from the school. Did I mention that this awards ceremony was ONLY for the 4th grade class? (Yeah, yeah. I know–I have no reason to gripe about parents showing up to support their kids. But hey, it was hot outside. And I was in a dress. You feel sorry for me already, don’t you?)

But I’m not here to complain about the school’s inadequate parking.

I’m here to complain about our inadequate expectations for our children.

When I was in elementary school, I made all A’s and B’s because that’s what was expected of me and because if I brought home a report card with a C, I was expected to come home from school each day and study whatever subject (let’s call it “math”) I had earned that C in until I brought it back up to an A or B. There was no such thing as “A and B honor roll” and I didn’t get a certificate of achievement at the end of the year. There were always kids who struggled in school; kids who failed a grade or two. Heck, I graduated high school with a guy who was just shy of his twenty-first birthday, but when he walked across that stage and received his diploma, he had earned it.

Nowadays we’re so concerned about “no child left behind” that administrators have teachers teaching our kids how to pass standardized tests, not how to think for themselves. Failing kids means loss of federal funding, so educators do everything they can to make sure kids don’t fail those tests. Oftentimes memorization and rote thinking takes the place of the experience of learning how to learn, comprehend and retain knowledge. How else could you possibly explain how a person could graduate high school without knowing how to read?

What I’m about to say may be shocking and unacceptable to some, but here goes:

We need to allow our children to fail.

In school, in sports, in relationships, in life. Allow them small failures when they’re young and they will be equipped to handle and even avoid large failures when they’re older. Parents and educators need to stop saving them all the time, telling them, “It’s okay this time, but don’t do it again.” Because you know what? If you do that, it’s NOT okay and they WILL do it again. We’re indoctrinating an entire generation of dependence and entitlement, evidenced by an attitude that everything good in their lives is because they deserve it and everything bad is someone else’s fault. (I blame Shel Silverstein and The Giving Tree for much of this, but that’s a whole other rant.)

Today I attended a 4th grade awards ceremony in my daughter’s classroom. Every class in every grade level has one. Each child stands up and shakes the teacher’s hands while three awards are announced. Most kids have more, but only three of their choosing are allowed to be announced. Why? Because three is the minimum number any child can receive. Essentially, if the child has a pulse, is registered at the school and shows up for class they get an award. Which means my daughter’s classmate who has never made less than a 98 on anything he’s ever turned in, who reads at a high school level and is being tested to skip the 5th grade is equally recognized with the kid who rarely turns in his work and is a constant disruption in class. The star athlete, the exceptional artist, the accomplished musician and even the class clown don’t have their exceptional abilities recognized above anyone else for fear of damaging anyone’s precious self-esteem.

When everyone and everything is exceptional, no one or nothing really is.

That’s unacceptable.

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31 Responses to “Pardon me while I rant incessantly: Celebrating mediocrity”

  1. Louise May 27, 2011 at 3:26 am #

    You make a lot of sense!

  2. Candy May 27, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    I have never agreed more strongly with you. Never.

  3. Alise May 27, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    This reminds me of The Incredibles (which I just referenced at ANOTHER blog – time to watch this movie again, perhaps?). The whole idea is that being “super” is bad (“If everyone is special then no one is”). I always found that to be a really ballsy position for a movie to take, considering how terrified parents are to admit that their child might not be exceptional.

    Every child is unique and that makes them special. But I totally agree, we don’t need ceremonies to recognize that a child is unique. Instead, we’re teaching our kids not to push themselves to find where they *can be* exceptional by rewarding mediocrity.

    • Sarah@ From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell May 27, 2011 at 8:12 am #

      Parents should be the ones celebrating their children’s uniqueness, not schools. As teacher, I’ve been placed in the position of my students’ parent too many times. I so wish parents would be parents so teachers could simply be teachers.

      • katdish May 27, 2011 at 9:33 am #

        Sarah – I’m pretty sure you’ve just expressed the wish of every teacher I’ve ever known.

  4. Nick the Geek May 27, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    I hate the everyone wins mentality. I like to win. I mean I really like to win, I mean I will cut you if it helps me win. That said, I get beyond angry when everyone wins because it invalidates what I’ve tried to achieve.

    In an atmosphere like that I don’t care about winning.

    Yes it hurts to lose, but hurting is better than apathy.

  5. Sarah@ From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell May 27, 2011 at 8:10 am #

    As a former teacher, I’m so glad I’m not the only one ranting about this! In fact, I truly wish this “No child left behind mess” would be eradicated from schools, but I digress. This mentality fails to establish a solid work ethic and perpetuates a nonchalant attitude toward education. I came from home that required hard work, but I’ve students upset with me because i wouldn’t raise their grade, penalized late work, and refused to make the work “easier”–and this was ALL on the college level. My years teaching high school were much worse. Great rant today!

  6. Cathy May 27, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    Agree, my dear!

    For some reason, this makes me think of the whole current “give our kids choices in everything” trend. If they take 3 lessons in something and don’t like it, they can quit!

    I wouldn’t make my kids do something they hated for years and years (like my Dad making me run track, although I am perversely grateful for that, now), but if they start something they WILL finish out the season/year (barring a crisis.)

    But I bet you’ve already written something about choices. 🙂

  7. Simply Darlene May 27, 2011 at 9:53 am #


    Learning how to win graciously and learning how to lose with honor is important — because an adult who cannot handle either, creates a society of obnoxious whiners. I also think it goes deeper than that. How will the future adults in your daughter’s class handle life in the real world? I reckon the therapists will have full couches. Ah, but what of the therapist who once was a student in your daughter’s class? It could be the beginning of a vicious cycle.

    My motto: Win, lose, or fall flat on yer face, do the best you can, with what you have, while you are able. And laugh, dude!


  8. Jason May 27, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    YES! YES! YES!

  9. Berniece Richards May 27, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    We, as parents and educators, want to preserve the child’s self esteem but there is a point where the child/student must realize that his/her actions also carry responsibilities. As a former educator and educational diagnostician, I agree that mediocrity shouldn’t be rewarded with the exceptional! During my educational experiences I observed that many of the students who had academic difficulties also had problems accepting responsibility for their own actions. A sad and dangerous problem that is carried into adult life.

  10. Simply Darlene May 27, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    Miss Kathy, I had to come back and share this link. By the grace of God, we can set aside our needs to win & excel, slip into obscurity, or fall by the wayside & just get by. Look how these kids put others first. They shine…


  11. jasonS May 27, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Honestly, this is why we fall behind. There is less and less pressure (and yes, I mean this in a good way) to achieve and surpass because everyone gets a star. It’s hard to correct that at home when the message is coming from everywhere else that it’s bad to achieve and reach for greatness (whatever that looks like). Anyway, it’s painful to watch. Thanks for fighting the good fight, Kat. 🙂

  12. Jeanne Damoff May 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Agree 100%. You should run for school board.

  13. karenzach May 27, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    But I thought I was #Bornthisway

  14. Megan Willome May 27, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    Have we let our kids get too big to fail?

  15. SarahBee May 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm #


  16. Jennie May 27, 2011 at 6:34 pm #

    Amen! Preach it, sister!!

  17. floyd May 27, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    Adults are so ignorant sometimes, all those kids know the truth, they know it’s a complete sham. Only the adults are being fooled here. That process just creates spoiled, robotic conformists that dishonors our American heritage.I coached a high school division 1 varsity lacrosse program for 6 years. While I told all the kids they were winners for showing up and shared with them that was the most important part of success, I also told them not many would make it. You wanna’ be great? Your gonna have to sacrifice. We need to teach our kids that the best gift they will ever receive in this life after the gift of Salvation is the gift they earn for themselves. Money, position or politics can buy self-respect and honor. We’re creating a generation of wishy-washy-pansy-faces…

  18. Jennifer May 27, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    Agree! I left teaching for a few reasons, but one of the reasons was that I couldn’t stand the trend in education to hold only teachers accountable for a student’s success. I remember an administrator telling us that we should not penalize a student for turning in work late–that was grading responsibility and not what the student had actually learned. I asked him, “What if I just showed up late to work? What would happen?” His response was that nothing I did in the classroom would motivate my students the way a paycheck would for a job, so I couldn’t make the comparison. Interesting.

    The only part of your post where I disagree slightly is with ‘No Child Left Behind.’ I don’t think the program is good; however, I think the problems in education started before NCLB; kids were being socially promoted. Now, unfortunately, like you wrote, kids are learning how to take tests and not actually how to think.

  19. Jake May 27, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

    If you’d just run for office, I’d vote for you.

    You should watch a movie called “Idiocracy” –well… maybe. It’s vulgar and awful (Made by the guy who did Beavis and Butthead). But at the same time, it’s brilliant and makes complete fun of how we’re raising kids these days and the consequences that could come say… 500 years from now.

    Anyway, I like it when you rant. It makes sense and makes me smile.

  20. Larry Hehn May 27, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    I can’t add enough amens to this post.
    Spot on, kat!

  21. Hazel Moon May 28, 2011 at 2:37 am #

    I certainly do agree with you and it is not fair to those children who work so hard to achieve to be given the same reward as those who do nothing. It is nice that every child get some sort of certificate, even if it is one that says most entertaining class clown!

  22. Jonathan B May 28, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    Yes, yes, yes, yes. Although I will concur with Jennifer, the problems began long before NCLB. We’ve been advancing kids who did not qualify for advancement for quite some years now. In my local school system, kids who fail the end of grade tests are given intensive memorization training on the test for a couple of weeks and then retake it. If they fail again, this is repeated until they don’t.

    And you didn’t mention the fact that we’ve renormed the standardized achievement tests with significant downgrades at least twice since the 1950s to hide just how far we’ve fallen.

    It’s interesting to note that the beginning of the fall of test scores correlates very closely with the removal of the Bible and God from schools. It’s not just a case of removing God, but also restructuring the moral code of the country that set certain standards of student behavior and supported disciplinary standards to go with it. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule provided a standard to which even non-Christians attempted to adhere for social acceptance. But without a “supreme being”, our moral standards are whatever the nearest group of humans decides they are. And that’s a standard which has been falling rapidly ever since. Humans tend to choose standards that don’t restrict things they want to do.

  23. Heather Sunseri May 28, 2011 at 7:54 am #

    Oh, my, I have so many ranting stories flowing through my head on this subject right now. I’ll spare you, b/c it sounds like you and I sing the same tune. I’m definitely disappointed in our culture of not allowing our children to fail, therefore never allowing them to learn how to pick themselves back up.

  24. Patricia May 28, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    The entitlement mentality drives me absolutely crazy… and it doesn’t just apply to kids… but that’s a whole ‘nother pot of coffee. I’m watching some parents so consumed by trying to prepare a perfect world for their child that they have lost sight of their most important responsiblity. TO PREPARE THE CHILD FOR THE WORLD. No perfect child, no perfect parent, no perfect world. That’s pretty much why we all need the grace of God.

    • katdish May 28, 2011 at 10:15 am #

      Exactly. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

  25. Helen May 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    Apparently it has gotten worse. I was ranting when my principal required that every child get an award. She wanted “Effort” awards to go to the students who weren’t getting any others. I had a S**tfit. That meant the “Effort”” award wasn’t even worth toilet paper (too rough) for the handful of students who were not doing well but trying very hard. I was accused of not liking the difficult students. I pretty much said “Fine, let’s give a “Likeability” award and give it to everybody, but effort is another whole ball of wax. I lost the argument. I think I added the word “Excellent” to the Effort award for the students who deserved it.

  26. Matt October 10, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    Then what do we call worthy of achievement? The person who saves a civilization or makes a lifetime of wealth might call what you or I do mediocre? Where do we draw the line?

    If you have a definition of where then please how do you justify it? Can you prove it to be an indelible truth of the universe that your limit of what is considered not mediocre is the true definition? If not, then how come their choice is any less valid than yours?

    I just started my first business as a novelist and sold my first book. My wife wanted to celebrate but I had to pause and think. Why is that worth celebrating? That is what brought me to this post so I posit the question to you. Why is it worth celebrating any more than celebrating a jump in grades?

    • katdish October 10, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Matt. I must admit I had to go back and read what I wrote. I tend to rant a lot here. As far as proving any undeniable truth of the universe, I’m afraid I’m ill-equipped to do that. What I wrote was my response to my frustration with not ever allowing our children to experience any real failure. What I define as success may be very different than your definition. Although I will say that selling your first book is cause for celebration by my estimation. That’s a long road. Congratulations to you!

  27. Matt October 10, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    As a person who grew up receiving praise for graduating into various elementary school grades I can tell you right now that most children are able to understand the praise is quite thin. Parents and teachers are not the only voice in the ear of kids.

    I remember quite clearly feeling a strange rift between what my parents and teachers and what the world said about me. Celebration of gifted students, millionaires, heroes, the beautiful and the cool are all around us in society. What we wear and what we can afford is told to define us, are as are genetic abilities beyond our control.

    It is easy for a child to become disillusioned with themselves when they know that society demands success and draws the bar of mediocrity so high. Everyone is average it seems until they are an athlete, wealthy, a nobel winner, or some kind of absurdly high level of excellence. Great men and women go unnoticed in our society merely because they chose the life of teacher instead of Bill Gates.

    You say that allowing children to experience some praise in school prevents them from experiencing failure, and that if they are allowed more it will prepare them for life. Looking back on my own childhood all I can see is my parents desperately trying to keep the world from swallowing me up. We live in a world where we consider celebration of the small things to be a kind of failure on the part of little people. The most comment thing I read on the internet is a message akin to “who cares.” Who cares what you did, someone did it better. Who cares what you did, you are probably gay anyway. Who cares what you did, you are no Steve Jobs.

    You said my book is a long road but isn’t that as arbitrary as saying any other type of event is worth celebrating? Lots of people swing the bar even higher.

    My thought is that the bar is only in our head. Either all of it is worth celebrating or none of it is worth celebrating. Either lives are strings of little celebrations or they are permanent states of mediocrity. Sure we could put the bar somewhere in the middle but the reasoning seems arbitrary so I don’t see why we would put it anywhere but the extremes.

    There is a phrase people often say “if we’re all special then no one is.” This only holds true if we have a universe definition of special. This seems to be observably false given the very argument people have over this issue. It seems that a more accurate line is “no one is special except those I choose.”

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