What do you, dear readers, think about this scenario?
Your child’s teachers decide that it would be an effective learning/motivational tool to organize an ice-cream sundae party for all the children in that grade. This party would be connected closely to the child’s mastery of math facts—namely multiplication--the more tables the child masters, the more they are allowed to add to their sundaes. The child must even earn the spoon and the bowl. A child who has mastered all the multiplication tables could earn a sundae with all the works; a child who is struggling could, conceivably, only earn the plastic bowl or, perhaps, just the plastic spoon.
Last year L.’s teachers held a pizza party with the same rules. L. ended up with just an empty paper plate, and a math sheet shaped like a pizza.
This year, right up until the 11th hour, it was unclear whether or not L. would even get the ice cream. The scenario was complicated by the fact that Scott and I (and L., apparently) knew nothing until this Tuesday about how the kids were working towards ice cream sundaes. L.'s been struggling with the multiplication tables for months now. I ache for him, because the multiplication tables were the bane of my existence for a long, long, time (even today I freeze and experience a moment of panic when I have to multiply). L.'s situation is complicated by the fact he doesn't respond at all to long-term motivators and that he is not a quiz taker—he makes silly slip-ups; a moment’s distraction, like someone coughing, or brushing his elbow, can cause him to completely lose focus. As of Thursday at 9:00 a.m. he had only earned a bowl and a spoon.
It’s a tough line to walk, really—the one where you struggle not to undermine your child’s teachers while at the same time letting your child know you feel the injustice of it all, that you’re in his corner, that you’ll be his voice. On the one hand I understand that motivating students in this way can be effective—especially for kids who are competitive, and who really, really, want a sundae with all the works, and who are socially aware enough to feel ashamed if they don’t get it. But this method is a complete flop, and damaging, I believe, for kids who are struggling—whatever the reason—with some aspect of school, whether it be math, writing, or reading. Kids like L. who are impossible to motivate through long-term goal-setting just can’t work towards an end-goal like that. And activities like this ice cream party and the pizza party last year only serve to further alienate the child who is struggling in school, whatever the reason. They make him feel further isolated, and incapable—in his eyes, and in the eyes of his peers.
Oh, that tough line we parents walk--it gets trickier and trickier every day. In the end, L. earned a bowl of vanilla ice cream, but me? I still have a bitter taste in my mouth.
I hated so much the thought that my son’s fragile sense of self-worth as a student took a huge blow this week over this ice cream sundae business that I decided that we would have our own ice cream sundae party at home—a Feel Good Sundae Party, as we dubbed it. I decided to connect my children’s accomplishments at home to ice cream toppings, just as they did at L.'s school, except at our house being kind earned you a maraschino cherry, finishing a homework sheet a pillow of whipped cream, and cleaning your room, all the rainbow sprinkles you wanted. I tied the goals to our own reward chart we use at home, and it was a sweet way to brighten up a difficult week.