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"Where's My Pizza Party?" (Should We be Praising Kids for Every Little thing They Do?)

Posted by Toni Vitanza

A couple of years ago, I spent a great part of a school year substituting in sixth-grade classrooms. In our district, this is the first year of middle school. To this day, I’ve never visited the elementary schools from where these students come. But I can guess that they’re full of teachers with bags of candy, gold stars, little (or big) charts with smiley stickers, and pizza parties for the class that gathers the largest number of cans for the food drive. I can guess that these teachers are really worried about making these kids all feel “good” about themselves.

I assume that’s true because something I noticed right off was the constant need the kids had for what I can only call “validation.” I had little time left to really teach the slower kids much, because I was so busy with the bright kids who would raise their hands. I’d walk to their desk. Here’s the exchange that would typically follow:

“Ms. V, is this right?”
“Ms. V, do you like it?”
“Ms. V, is this what you want?”

“Yes, Jessica. Yes, Matthew, looks good.” Followed by the fallen faces of Jessica and Matthew. Apparently I’m not as effusive as the teachers they’re used to.

Now, my suspicion — borne out by subsequent interactions with these kids — is that the Jessicas and the Matthews KNOW they’re doing it correctly. After all, they’ve had straight-As since first grade, along with $5 (or $50) for every one, and a trip to Blockbuster or Dairy Queen on report card night. So, they’re pretty confident that they’re “getting it.” So what’s the point of the exchange? Part of me thinks they’re just showing off. But another part of me thinks that they haven’t learned to evaluate themselves, give themselves a little — a LITTLE — internal pat on the back, and then MOVE ON to the next step or project.

In other words, “Where’s my pizza party?”

These same kids, lacking in what I can only call “internal resources,” are the first ones to ask, at the (always swift, because there might be a prize for being first!) completion of an assignment, “What do I do next?” Well … I told you what to do next. And if I didn’t, well, for cryin’ out loud, get out a book you’re reading (you ARE carrying a recreational book in that backpack, aren’t you?) or read from the next chapter in our text, or work on homework from another class, or write a letter in longhand (imagine!) to your grandmother, or meditate, or, or…!

I love little children, and a lot of my friends have them. Go to a park for an afternoon and just listen in.

Count the number of times you hear, “Good job!”

For heaven’s sake, a kid slides down the slide and giggles and the mom says, “Good job!”
“Way to go!”
“You did it!”
Well, of COURSE the kid did it; it’s FUN! That’s why you brought him!

This issue — constant praise and reward and gratification for doing WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO or what you would NATURALLY do doesn’t just rear its ugly head with children. Every time I read about some big, fancy charity ball or other such event in the society pages, I wonder: What if all those rich people took all the money they spent on tickets, tuxes, ball gowns, hair stylists, catering, etc., for the big event designed to draw attention to some worthy cause, and just GAVE IT TO THE CAUSE? But no, they need the grown-up equivalent of the pizza party to make all that giving worth the trouble, when generosity is supposed to be its own reward, and IS — WHEN WE LET IT! I mean, after all, this kind of thing is TAX-DEDUCTIBLE for these people, and they STILL want the pizza party!

What if we told the kids who win the food drive contest: We’re going to take the money we were going to spend on the pizza party, and donate it to the food bank? What IF? What if we told them, BEFORE the food drive started, that there’s not going to be a reward or party at all, just “bragging rights.” That they’ll just have to be happy knowing that they raised food for the hungry? What IF?

I asked my son once: Has a cop ever pulled me over and given me a citation for my excellent driving? Told me what a great job I was doing? No. My reward is that I get to avoid an accident. I get to enjoy LESS of an INCREASE in my insurance costs. That’s it. No pizza party.

I was given the “Outstanding Flight Attendant” award one year at my flight base. (For those of you who don’t know, I’m a flight attendant and former journalist in addition to being a substitute teacher!) So I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of thing. I’m not going to kid you: I LOVED being given that award, especially in 2001, even though the events of that year meant that the tangible benefits (monetary worth) were completely absent. It meant something to me. I’d organized a blood drive after 9/11, found places for stranded pilots and flight attendants to sleep that week, gotten a lot of nice letters from passengers. But I didn’t do it because I thought I would get that award. I did that stuff because I WANTED to, because it felt not just good but NECESSARY, and because I was taught by parents, and Girl Scout leaders, and teachers, that doing good was what I, and everyone else,  was SUPPOSED to do, and not because someone was going to swoop down and pin a gold star on me. I put the little trophy in my living room, next to my husband’s teaching awards, because I want our son to know that we value doing a good job and that being recognized by our bosses for it MATTERS. That’s why I read him good letters I get from passengers; he deserves to know that the time I spend away from him is spent DOING MY BEST for my employer and for my employer’s customers.

But here’s the kicker: The real reason I was finally given that award, after years of work and being considered several times, was that my son didn’t get sick that year, and my attendance had, subsequently, been perfect. And perfect attendance is the starting point for evaluating candidates for the award, no matter what other wonderful things they’ve done.

In other words, just SHOWING UP for work you get PAID to do is the basis for earning it!

So where do you stand? Do you think that the economic meltdown will have, among other happy side-effects, the result that people will realize that not every good action deserves a tangible reward? Or, do you believe that every good action DOES deserve a tangible reward?

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