Graduation celebration encourages mediocrity

I didn’t grow up on a farm. And it’s striking to me how much the seasons mark the passage of time.

This makes me think about how I marked the passage of time when I lived in the city and one of the first things that comes to mind is school graduation. It’s the end of a fall-winter progression. It’s the end of a cycle. And everyone graduates. Not for doing anything great. Just because.

I realize now that yearly graduation is a messed up way to march through life. Here’s why:

1. We already have a way to mark our years. It’s called a birthday. And there’s no way your kid lets you miss that celebration. The kids don’t need two celebrations to mark the passage of time.

2. It should be a given that kids learn what they are told to learn. Graduation is a given for school kids. The kids learn that if they just show up, they get a reward. Beyond the valedictorian, graduation does not acknowledge that some kids worked harder, some kids are smarter, some kids accomplished something special while in school.  So graduation is another way to give all the kids a trophy just for showing up. Abby, at Momma Findings points out that she expects her daughter to learn the proscribed lessons for her grade. So she feels wrong rewarding her daughter for meeting the universal expectations. The celebration, then, is that you met the minimum requirement. Surely this is not what we want to tell kids.

3. Homeschoolers should have the advantage in the everyone-gets-a-trophy world. The New York Times shows the history of grade inflation, to illustrate how useless grades are for determining if a kid is actually performing in an extraordinary way. Homeschoolers do not get graded on a curve, so they should, theoretically, not have the deleterious effects of grade inflation. But the mere fact that everyone graduates, no matter what effort they put in, is another sort of grade inflation that we should not participate in.

4. Rewarding kids only for extraordinarily strong efforts builds more resilient kids. Grade inflation promotes ego inflation, the opposite of healthy self-confidence. “We want to encourage effort, especially among young kids,” says Jean M. Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. “But the ‘everybody gets a trophy’ mentality basically says that you’re going to get rewarded just for showing up. That won’t build true self-esteem; instead, it builds this empty sense of ‘I’m just fantastic, not because I did anything but just because I’m here.'”

5. Kids who get rewarded for everything are poor competitors. The current generation of young workers was raised in an environment where everyone is a winner. The result is that, on the positive side, Millenials are incredible team players in the workplace. The negative, though, is that they can’t handle being told someone is better than they are. They want everyone to be equal. Management trainer Bruce Tulgan wrote the book, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Millenials, because kids who are rewarded for simply showing up end up thinking that it’s okay to simply show up at work as well.

6. The world rewards people who exceed expectations. In the work world, if you have a resume that simply describes the duties of your job, you look like a bare-minimum performer. You go to work and do what you’re told. If you have a resume that shows that you exceeded expectations, you look like a star, and you get more control over your career. So we should teach kids that meeting expectations is just that—not bad, but nothing to celebrate.

7. Pick more meaningful ways to mark time. Homeschooling allows you to question the routines of our culture and look for what resonates with you. We can question the world around us because we are not dependent on schools. Graduation teaches kids that you get an award for time passing. Graduation is not an award for extraordinary effort or achievement.

I know not everyone can live on a farm, but everyone can mark time passing in more realistic ways than rewarding a kid for another year of learning.

Times change. Seasons change. Leaves fall. Flowers bloom. Snow falls. But learning doesn’t stop. There is not a moment when learning stops or is finished. So graduation seems like a completely inappropriate way to mark cycles of time.

37 replies
  1. Lizarino
    Lizarino says:

    Even private schools are set up this way. It’s become the norm now to celebrate each milestone in a child’s education. People are heavily invested in their children’s education, so I don’t know if it’s more for the parents to validate their educational expectations or if it’s leftover everyone deserves a trophy thinking from gen Y… either way, I say congratulations if someone brings it up. With homeschooling we just keep on learning, we don’t celebrate graduations, we just keep advancing in concepts and material, plan educational trips across the country… so I guess we’re always on summer break because we’re always having fun with our learning. Moving on to the next concept no matter what “grade” isn’t a big deal to us… it’s just the way we roll…

  2. Jen
    Jen says:

    This drives me particularly nuts in Atlanta. Each subdivision posts big banners with the names of all the high school graduates from that neighborhood on it. Then some parents go further and put up an individual banner or sign in their yard. These kids are from affluent suburbs and clearly aren’t the first in their family to finish high school–yet we put their name on a marquee like it is an accomplishment rather than an expected occurrence.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The difference between expected performance and exceeding expectations is so incredibly important to teach. I spend so much time rewriting resumes that are filled with expected performance.

      Most people write resumes that list their job duties – their expected performance. But what shows people you are special and a star performer is skipping the expected outcomes and listing the accomplishments. You can do this if school teaches you there’s no difference.


  3. karelys
    karelys says:

    Maybe we should throw a bash to declare puberty for both boys and girls.

    jk! that’d be embarrassing and traumatizing.

    • Amy K.
      Amy K. says:

      Many cultures/religions mark the passage into puberty. Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, confirmation, quinceaneras, etc.

      • Tim
        Tim says:

        Most 15 year old girls have completed puberty, so I wouldnt really compare them to the example Karelys presented.

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          yes Tim, I was trying to make a joke about “hey you got your period! we’re throwing a party to let the world know!!!”


          “we’ll throw a party once you’re able to grow a full mustache as sign of puberty.”

          It’s be so arbitrary and embarrassing on both accounts.

  4. Julianna
    Julianna says:

    Are you talking about graduations at the end of every year? Because I’ve never done that — and neither have my kids (and no, not all kids advance to the next grade)

  5. BB
    BB says:

    “Graduation is not an award for extraordinary effort or achievement.” No, but it is a life-changing event for the kid. Graduation means you’re done with this school, say goodbye to your friends, good luck, and get out. You could make the same argument that nothing short of a Nobel prize warrants a celebration.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Yes I was thinking of the same thing. I did my bachelors online and didn’t want to make a big hoopla about it unless I had a masters or doctorate in my hand. Or the license to practice. Since that was the point of it all.

      Not to say I regret my decision but after that I decided to celebrate little victories, whatever they are.

      The graduating from highschool is more about ending a season, I think. But I guess for many it’s an accomplishment. I can’t use the way I think and extrapolate for the rest of my community really. I am so far off sometimes but it looks so normal to me.

      I graduated kindergarten back in the 90s and I was so excited! It meant I got to go to the next level. It meant I didn’t get held back (yeah, my family frightened me with that haha!).

  6. Sarah m
    Sarah m says:

    I see the high school graduation as a form of what a lot of different cultures celebrate from childhood into adulthood and ‘exiting the house’, but I’ve recently heard of elementary schools (and preschools!) doing a graduation ceremony for all the kids who ‘graduate’ into the next yearly level. “Graduating from 4th grade!” What? I’d never want to spend a free weeknight celebrating that. I love my kids but that’s a waste of time.
    Sarah M

  7. Francesco
    Francesco says:

    I attended high school in Europe and college in the US. My high school was (far) tougher. We had no graduation celebration.

    Both school systems have their pros and cons; the European one is more theoretical, the American one more practical.

    But the feeling you get when you are preparing for your high school finals in Europe is tough to explain to someone who never went to school there: it’s a mix of stress, expectations, melancholy, sleepless nights, summer bliss, coffee smell, world cup (or European cup) soccer games in the background (or celebrations in the streets watched from your window with the books in your hands), cursing of long-dead poets, and longing for a brain-dead vacation at the beach.

    This mix of feelings was best captured by a great, classing song by Antonello Venditti, recently turned into a (very mediocre) movie

  8. cortney
    cortney says:

    this headline made me laugh. i never picked up my diploma from my college registrar. i was sad and pissed about the whole experience.

    as far as school, what happens if a kid is really great at academics naturally, but has other issues, like mental health issues, asperger’s, or poor socialization? i think this happens a fair amount, and schools (and/or families) are just like, great test scores? cool. our job is done. get out of my space. but high school is pretty easy, and blowing it out at, say, an l.a. public school is nothing to scream and shout about. tests, grades, grade levels, whatever, are not an accurate reflection of a kid’s inner state of affairs.

    also, all my friends who are doing well in life financially didn’t give a hoot about school. they burned their eyes out teaching themselves programming or photoshop or hacking in their spare time, and slept through their classes. teacher gave them a really hard time. they are fine and making more than said teachers.

    it really made me sad that my cousin, who just graduated from high school, never ditched a class, did 4 hours of homework everyday, and is now arbitrarily choosing pharmacy as a career even though she hates chemistry class. what is school doing to people?

    while i am writing this much, thanks for numbering your points and having links open in a new window. there’s nothing more that i want from a blog post than bullet points and not losing my place when i click on a link.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Justin Timberlake’s character in The Social Network says “It’s not cool to graduate. You know what’s cool? to get a job!”

      Even throwing a big bash for finishing college is dumb because nothing has been accomplished yet. But getting a job because of all the legitimate effort put through college? that deserves an all out bash.

      Maybe if we did that and it became the thing to do, everyone would change their minds about college and then colleges would make sure that they are really connecting students with jobs.

      • cortney
        cortney says:

        yes! throw a bash when you can finally cover all your bills and can afford enough fun things to keep you from going insane. i also wish that colleges could be more flexible and that we, as a society, could drop the “this is what a smart 18yo does for 4 years” thing. that being said, i think you can often tell when someone’s been to a good college when they interact with others, and it seems like college is the place where people learn most about politics, sexism, racism and blah-blah because high schools don’t seem to want to tackle that, and i think it would be a sucky loss to us all if less people got that education.

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          Yes, I go back and forth on that. I am a big advocate of homeschooling/unschooling. But the harsh truth is that even now school is the only chance many people get to see different lights and different ways of thinking (as narrow as that may seem when your options are many).

          My mother was a teacher in Mexico. In a time and a place where literacy was stupid low being a teacher was a great honor. My father never stepped foot in school. He reads like crazy. Because he drives a freight truck he listens to all kinds of stuff on the radio and makes notes when he stops. When he comes home he shares all his new learning. It’s endearing and inspiring at the same time. He just never stops learning.

          He said “Xanax is good for anxiety.” “This herb helps with that.” “The brain relocates certain motor skills when a part of it dies.”

          I thought of Penelope and Xanax and how I don’t want to depend on it but sometimes anxiety is paralyzing and how I should have it in my purse for the worse days.

          To some, regular high school and regular college, that’s all we had. And I am so grateful for blogs like this that have changed my mind. I hope to chart a new path for my son.

          It’s maddening that I am so “behind.”

          But the truth is, that’s all I had. We never had any guidance other than the common wisdom. It’s sad but at least life is not over and we still get to try again everyday.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        Yeah. I skipped walking for my doctorate because I was getting paid to do something I enjoyed. I found that much more compelling.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “I realize now that yearly graduation is a messed up way to march through life.”

    The keyword here is “yearly” because learning is not a linear process nor a predictable one. We are not crops that go through yearly cycles when it comes to learning. The school year and grades are an artificial construct. It’s our desire to create measurement and order in our education system across our society. It’s our desire to hold each other accountable for our learning rather than place the emphasis on making ourselves accountable for ourselves ( i.e. – self-reliance).
    Also, as you say, we never really ‘graduate’ – we merely advance through our own hoops or those of someone else.

  10. CJ
    CJ says:

    This rings so very true for a whole host of reasons. As homeschool/unschool parents I/we strive to make our kids feel as precious and loved to us as we can. We are demonstrating they are just that important to us. It really can be a slippery slope giving the impression that we and the universe revolve around our kids at home BUT we have the opportunity for life lessons instantly, rather than letting their misconceptions run wild a long time (like that grades in school equate to lifelong achievement).Yesterday while giggling with my kids at lunch, my son blankly remarked in the most aloof tone to my daughter when she said how lucky she is to have me at home, that mommy never has to work because Daddy does and that I “get everything I want, too, because he works and we have lots of money.” I took a deep breath trying not to sound defensive and explained that I drive a 12-13 year old car, I don’t have new cloths, I don’t shop the mall, rarely splurge on myself, etc etc as many of my working friends do, so that we can afford my staying home. I used to make a very good living and if I went back I could have those things but that the material things are not what is important right now to me. I told my son directly that this is no guilt trip! I make my own choices and I always only do what I love- which is them right now. But, that he should know there are often trade offs and everyone has to contribute in life and make choices. My rewards are great but most of the time I am the only one to witness that. I think when parents say, “I could NEVER homeschool,” that part of it is that they worry over this very thing. Because our narcissistic society needs accolades. Nobody is throwing me a parade when I unstop a toilet, LOL.

    Kids in schools get caught up in the material competition, the grades competitions, the uniformity pressure, the puberty and sexual encounter race. And, the schools not only propagate the myth that school+more school+college=perfect adult life, but they also allow all these crazy immature notions to continue. As homeschoolers, we get to have rational discussions about reality before the myths get ingrained.

    • cortney
      cortney says:

      the material goods race that schools seem to foment–that right there is the most emotionally stunting thing. and it’s disgusting to watch as an adult knowing that it’s so bad for them.

      also, i would maybe throw you a parade if you unstopped my toilet. at the very least, you’d get a drink out of it.

      • CJ
        CJ says:

        We call my son the professor because he sort of paces back and forth and goes into mad deep thoughts and is so sweet hearted yet ultimately logical. he loves this title. He is one of those kids that is quirky because he is beyond his years but he is super affectionate one on one (many people tell me out of his ear shot that he is Sheldon, the character on Big Bang theory.) So I knew he wasn’t being hurtful, just stating the way it is from his 9 yo pov. The truth is he thanked me for not buying a new car….So I can keep making him his favorite lunches!! :-) His honesty enchants me. Both he and my daughter regularly show gratitude for unschooling and are always helpful in the house. Just, the concept of me being a separate woman/entity before them isn’t in their grasp yet.

    • mbl
      mbl says:

      Funny, we have the opposite problem here. DD7 and I were outside weeding and she informed me that her father was shirking his familial duty by being at work rather than helping out. She really doesn’t yet grasp the whole “work for a living” thing yet. Never mind that we were pulling the damndelions so they wouldn’t spread when he mowed the lawn after working all day (and then changed the clutch on the washer!)

      She said that he could quit and we could live off of her lemonade stand proceeds. I informed her that his job subsidizes her organic lemonade and muffin stand since we get a ton of foot/bike traffic, but no one carries money with them.

      To try to get her to understand value, I tend to translate costs into things like craft supplies, park admissions, and american girl dolls.

      • CJ
        CJ says:

        Oh I love that! The lemonade…so sweet. Mine help care for our chickens and sell the eggs. My daughter thinks we are rich in egg money. I adore 7!!

        • mbl
          mbl says:

          “My daughter thinks we are rich in egg money.”

          And indeed you are, CJ. Indeed you are! :D

          My daughter is at my in-laws farm right now and is lobbying to bring a hen back with her.

          We plan to have a “free library” type thing in the front yard, only for art. She says the stuff will be free, but she expects they will leave a donation anyway . . .

          Any other ideas for getting rid of crafts bursting the seams of our house are welcome. We are planning on bestowing (unloading) some at a nursing home.

  11. redrock
    redrock says:

    Graduation is not really a celebration of achievement – it is a rite of passage and all cultures do this in one way or another. Sure, it can be overdone… like everything else, but it does mark a change in one’s life – whether you celebrate leaving home for a first job, or finishing school, or your college education, or a big project. It is like the parades for soldiers returning from war are on a deeper level not a celebration of the war or victory itself but a message to the soldier that they are welcomed back in society – they were sent out to do horrible things, and now we tell them that the society which sent them out allows them to come back and become a part of the group again. The reason we give officially for a celebration is not necessarily the deeper underlying motivation.

  12. Katy
    Katy says:

    I have no issues with High school and college graduations. Our high school, a few decades ago (won’t get into how many – ha ha), had a class celebration where those students who went above the expected were recognized and those that received scholarships were given notice publicly. At graduation we all walked but those that received honors visible signs of the honors and were specifically mentioned.

    However, now it seems “graduation” starts in preschool and goes every year, which is absolutely ridiculous. It celebrates what? Oh, now you are moving two doors down in our school, wahoo you!? We don’t have to celebrate everything. When we do, it doesn’t allow kids to be excited about any accomplishment in life.

  13. Leah
    Leah says:

    Outside of marking the end of high school, and college I don’t really get the need for a yearly graduation. It just seems to fall into this need to (over) celebrate everything, and then the big celebrations don’t feel so big any more.

    Last year I graduated with a BA in Classics through University of London International Program ( I studied online whilst working full time. It took me 6 years but I got my degree, and didn’t incur any debt along the way. UoL International Program have one graduation ceramony per year in London for all their graduates – it was an amazing experience. I got to meet students and teachers I’d only met online, and it was glorious to see the international turn out. The majority of the graduates had flown in with their families for the ceramony because it meant that much.

    Like most other students I studied part-time whilst working full-time, and am a mature student.

  14. kristen
    kristen says:

    At the outset, I agree with you. I didn’t attend my high school or college graduation…why should I? I was just starting over. It wasn’t until I completed med school when I finally donned the cap and gown.

    On the other hand, our culture is SOOO lacking in a ritual transformation into adulthood. It encourages our youth to get married or have a baby so they will finally be treated as adults. We also see young people languishing in adolescence rather than joining the grown up world. Graduation isn’t turning the trick but I’d love to find something that would, both for my own kids (eventually) and for our culture as a whole.

  15. mbl
    mbl says:

    It was interesting in that right after this was posted, my daughter and I walked to the park and saw some sort of celebration going on during school hours. I immediately wondered if it was some sort of homeschool group graduation/end of year party. There were a number of kids with instruments (and I saw some suzuki books,) kids in tkd uniforms, and a leotard or two. And then we heard a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” I suspect that it was a catch-all celebration.

    But that got me wondering. Are recitals a version of graduation, or are they a different beast? Is it different since each child participates and shows what they learned? Or should it be a given that they will learn the music for its own sake and maybe only the most extraordinary should be “rewarded” with an audience? Is everyone participates akin to getting a prize for showing up? For my part, I would have given anything not to have had to perform in the piano recitals when I was 6, thus I quit when I was 7.

  16. Erika
    Erika says:

    We can learn a lot from the Chinese culture; Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, seeing through the flaws of our generation (while critically analyzing hers); “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital [E.d. also hobbies etc.]. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.” . The book is filled with quotes concerning the topics of this blog (also showing proof what school does to students, without Amy realizing it).

    This celebrate-everything-mentality creates insecurities and fear of failure. Nobody knows what they’re actually worth, good at or capable of.

    The same goes for getting employed and executing work; many CEO’s in Belgium are complaining that most youngsters expect a good pay for just showing up and having a diploma. All the extra wage is for doing minimal effort. Youngsters expect being payed like a king for doing a bit of “special” work. There are enough good jobs in this bad economy, we just don’t have the right attitude to get and execute them.

    So I can easily make it a benefit for myself, starting with the resume (as mentioned above; distinction expected vs exceeding performance), job interview and while I conquer the work floor.

  17. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    If your child had to struggle, I mean really struggle, to graduate…I can see having a party. Otherwise, honestly, who cares? I didn’t want to go to either of my graduations, let alone a party, b/c I thought it was a waste of time. And it was. All my classmates were talking about during the ceremony was: Can’t wait to get high/wasted and who has a shore house we can crash for the summer before college/get a real job….I wasn’t upset they were thinking about these things but It just dawned on me that the ceremony was not needed.

    Have a tradition for things that truly matter in one’s life not just having a tradition for tradition sake. Math was a tough subject for me, but when I did well in the subject, my parents celebrated it b/c it meant something to me and they knew it.

Comments are closed.