Tuesday, January 8, 2008


Every month Lucy brings home a little yellow sheet of paper commending her on having been in school every day of the previous month. Every month I grind my teeth, ask her if she wants it, and, because happily she doesn't, I throw it away. Except this month, she didn't bring one home. Not that I noticed, of course, but yesterday she said, "I didn't get a yellow paper today, Mommy."

I acted nonchalant. "Oh, that's because you went to school late on Lucia Day, sweetie."

"Oh," she said. "You only get one if you're there for the first bell every day."

"Right," I said. "It was worth not getting one this month to get to stay home on Lucia morning, wasn't it?"

"Yes," she said, "they don't really mean anything."

That's my girl.

Still and all, has it come to this? Must we reward children just for showing up? Don't get me wrong, I'm not against rewards - ask me about the chocolate chip potty-training system sometime. It's just that I'd like to believe that we could find some, I don't know, accomplishment to reward them for. Doesn't rewarding kids just for showing up send a message that they haven't done anything substantive for which they might be rewarded? Doesn't it say, well, you haven't done much, but at least you were here! And doesn't it seem like if we reward them just for showing up, then they may come to believe that showing up is all that's required? And aren't there some fairly obvious motivational problems with that down the road? Not very far down the road, actually. And, finally, isn't there a fundamental problem with the idea that showing up every day is even desirable? I mean, what about illness? What about doctor's appointments, and family commitments, and educational opportunities that exist outside of the far-from-comprehensive public school curriculum?

I had a student this semester who earned a C in my class. When he got his grade, he was irate and demanded to know how this was possible. "Well," I said, "let's see. You had a C average on the homework, a C average on the quizzes, and a C on the final. That averages to a C."

"But I came to every class!" he said.

Maybe I should get him a yellow paper.

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