On Campus
Jun 04, 2012, 06:14AM

Unnecessary Graduations

And lessons in accomplishment.

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I have four children. They are all graduating this year. This is not because I have quadruplets. It’s not because I have two sets of twins. My children just completed 12th, 8th and 3rd grades, and kindergarten.

Yes, it’s legitimate that my oldest daughter graduates from high school: huge accomplishment worthy of celebration. The 8th grader? Marginally. I mean, yeah, I can see graduating from the middle school to celebrate your transition to high school. Sort of.  Three-hour ceremony in a hot gymnasium?  Not fun. But at least she’s “graduating” from one school to another.

When you get down into the elementary schools, they don’t use the word “graduation” (since, um, it isn’t one) as much as the beloved modern educational celebration of an “advancement ceremony.”

Our parental society, the same one that doesn’t let kids keep track of what the score is in soccer because we shouldn’t focus on winning and losing (there are no strikes or outs in t-ball, either) has decided that our children must be recognized multiple times a year (and even month) with certificates, trophies, medals, ribbons, pins, and other bedazzling symbols of “advancement.” Why do we over-decorate and over-congratulate our children? So they’ll have better self esteem, allegedly.

I don’t buy it.

I am not sure why we as parents and educators set our children up for a harsh awakening in the real world, where they will not be recognized for attendance, because they’ll just be expected to just show up every day.  

Why give them a certificate for returning library books when in the real world, you just get charged a fine if you don’t bring books back? And how disappointed will they be in their careers to discover that no one throws a big “advancement ceremony party” with cake for no apparent reason than the passage of another year at the office. Even when they do something great in the real world, unless they’re an Olympian or an Army general, chances are they won’t be decorated with shiny things.

Pre-school graduation ceremonies are huge these days. My Facebook feed is full of tiny cap and gown pictures, gifts/cake/parties, and rolled up diplomas in the tiny hands of a child who’s headed off to life’s next journey… kindergarten.

So as a mother, will I attend the 3rd grade advancement ceremony and the kindergarten graduations of my two younger children? Of course I will. I can’t let thinking parental society rituals are stupid and pointless turn me into a bad mother. My kids wouldn’t be surprised, though. I’ve always been the kind of mom that doesn’t jump up and down and frame everything they draw, micromanage homework and science fair projects, or run frantically when they fall off a bike (they always find me if they’re bleeding).

The recent hype over attachment parenting made me realize I’m more the detachment parenting type. I was raised in the days of “go play outside till.” 

Hot summer days back in the 1980s of my childhood went something like this: 

“Go play outside till lunch time.” (Later: a window would open and my mom would yell LUNCH)

(After lunch) “Go play outside til dinner.) (Later—window: DINNER!)

“You can play outside till it gets dark.”

We didn’t mind this. We went parentless to the neighborhood pool for most of the day, often packing a lunch so we could skip one window bellow. We went parentless to the nearby store and back (to buy cigarettes for our parents! Can you imagine?). We rode our bikes parentless to the King of Prussia Mall; the second largest shopping mall in the country was two miles from our house. We were free-range kids before there was such a thing.

I remember “graduating” from 8th grade, though I do not believe we wore caps and gowns. We did get small white index cards if we made honor roll during elementary school, but I was never decorated like the prize pig at the county fair for things like returning library books, character, or attendance.

I really don’t mean to be ranty, but I’ve been a mom for 18 years. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve learned a lot. I’m jaded. I’m exhausted, and honestly, there are some things I will do differently with my two younger kids than I did with my two older kids. 

But one thing I will never do as a mom is teach my kids that there’s no such thing as winning and losing, that they should pat themselves on the back every time they create something, or that they’re going to get (non-birthday) cake for the passing of another year.

Really? Just return the goddamn library books.

—Mary McCarthy also blogs at Pajamas and Coffee.


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