July 12, 2023
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
This time of year is generally marked by school celebrations of all kinds and, in particular, one that is centuries-old; school prize-giving. These events can feel oddly nerve-wracking for everyone. Will our beloved offspring win a prize? If they don’t, how might we mop up any tears, manage frustration and cries of unfairness or deal with the dent of disappointment?
Over the years, I have been present at such events numerous times. Sometimes my children have won lots of prizes, sometimes one has and one hasn’t (horror of horrors) but, more often than not, they have been the recipients of absolutely nothing and had to sit and watch their peers repeatedly queue to go onto the school stage. So, I have been there and I felt every conceivable emotion. When they have won something, I’ve felt a quiver of quiet joy, exhilaration and self-satisfaction; “I must be doing something right”. “They are working hard and this is proof of it”, I would tell myself. But, most importantly, I felt happy knowing that my children had been seen and recognised, that someone could see their great potential and was nurturing it. When we know our children are valued and appreciated, we can sit back and bask. Or can we? What do these prizes signify and what should they mean to us and our children? How should we be talking about prizes with our children? Does winning matter? What are we really celebrating?
I think it is worth thinking about our family’s attitude to prizes, winning and losing, and the earlier we have these conversations, the better. Presumably, we all enjoy seeing our children’s achievements being celebrated. When they do win something, to get maximum value from the experience, try asking them what they did to earn that prize? How did it feel to receive it? What might it inspire them to keep doing? Winning provides an opportunity for reflection which in turn can mean they take time to consider how they reached this pinnacle; it is nice to reflect on the effort they exerted perhaps, the perseverance that they demonstrated or the practice they put in.
If they are witnesses to a classmate winning a prize, this is a fantastic learning experience too and surely life’s litmus test for character: can you be happy for someone else? Can you look a friend in the eye and genuinely feel happy for them in their success?
These are the children I remember most from my experience of prize-giving days; children who weren’t the regular recipients of formal accolades, but who could always be seen with an arm around a mate, patting them on the back or asking to see their trophy. Isn’t that the child we would want to employ one day? The child who is able to quickly reframe loss, who is able to motivate another person despite feeling disappointed; chief encourager, the one who has the humility and strength of character to be happy for another in defeat?
Recently, I watched my own son perform for an important race. I was deeply impressed that, following a very painful defeat, he immediately went to watch his friend perform the high jump. On the car journey home, rather than focus on the disappointment of his performance and quiz him as to what went wrong, I told him I was very proud of what a good friend he had been that day, as he had mustered the enthusiasm to loyally support his pal across the track.
As parents, we also have opportunities in ‘defeat’ to model our personal values to our children. If we choose to fire off an email to the Head asking why our beloved has not received a prize this year, or questioning the judges’ judgement, what are we modelling? In sport, as in life, sometimes we have to take things ‘on the chin’. Sometimes, we won’t get the promotion or recognition we truly deserve, but instead of choosing to ‘thump the table’, as it were, such an experience can act as a motivator for trying again and for keeping going.
Prizes are nice, but they aren’t everything and they don’t define our children. Our children are precious, unique, incredible human beings, bursting with potential and they each move at their own pace and in their own way. Rest assured, their time will come. If you feel gutted that they didn’t win a prize at the end of summer term 2023, I feel your pain, but try to ‘zoom out’ and take a wider view of the world, of them and of their life and educational journeys. Keep nurturing their interests, their passions (many of which exist beyond school) and continue to praise them for attributes that may not always attract ‘formal recognition’. Perhaps they are incredibly kind, helpful, good fun to be with, full of great ideas, a reliable friend, have a beautiful smile, a warm heart, a forgiving character and are happy in their own skin.
Over the holidays, it’s tempting to try to ensure that our children don’t ‘miss out’ by planning lots of interesting trips, educational experiences and holiday treats. Sometimes, too many of these days trips can add pressure to already hectic schedules, quickly become very costly and might even deepen feelings of parental guilt when we don’t manage to fill every minute with organised amusements. Actually, quiet days where children organise their own activities and create their own fun by following their own interests, are just as valuable.
Today, a friend told me that an unusually empty Sunday, with nothing planned, actually led to her nine year old daughter turning her room into a shop. She crafted paper bunting and friendship bracelets to sell, produced a full pricing scheme, made recruitment adverts and created posters to promote the grand opening, complete with her own brand logo. Far from missing out, a bit of downtime and enforced boredom nudged her child to lean into her own interests, think outside of the box and come up with something that she found both engaging and fun! This is also the kind of playful, judgement free and non-instructional environment in which we know that everyday creative expression can thrive.
We’re learning from new research that fun, in any form, is utterly fundamental (sorry) to the development of children’s self-concept and self-esteem. Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, director of the Open University’s RUMPUS group for research into fun and a former Tooled Up Researcher of the Month, has found fun to be at the very core of what matters to young people most. This applies both to the activities that they do (regardless of whether or not they consider themselves to be good at them) and to their most important and valued relationships with people and pets. For young people, fun is profoundly meaningful and seems to be bound up with realistic challenges, skill-building, a sense of achievement and feelings of pleasure.
It turns out that access to fun is a key determinant of our children’s intrinsic feelings of motivation and their self-esteem. It’s therefore something that we should seek to promote as much as we can. Over the summer, this does not mean spending lots of money, signing children up to numerous classes, going to theme parks every week, or having fun ‘all the time’. Instead, it means attuning to their interests and enabling them to have access to things that they find truly enjoyable. Follow their lead, consider their individual needs, discover what little goals and challenges they’d like to set themselves and start planning some holiday activities that you can all look forward to.
The start of the holidays brings with it the arrival of school reports into our inboxes. Just like award days, school reports can occasionally spark a rollercoaster of emotions. Reading about our children’s efforts and accomplishments can make us burst with pride but finding out about areas of improvement can sometimes feel daunting and potentially puzzling for both us and our children.
I’ve been mulling over how we can encourage children to look forward to feedback of all kinds and to see it as a motivating springboard towards some new goals? My main advice is, before you file those reports away, read them, digest them and talk them over, constructively, with your child. Try to take all of the comments on board and work positively through them.
There are many children who feel what they perceive to be personal criticism very deeply. How can we encourage them to be upbeat about the things they aren’t so great at; to see them as challenges, rather than failings? Our job is to help them reframe these perceived negatives, take pride in their achievements and accomplishments and set some realistic goals and targets for the future. Together, reflect on all the things in the report that make them and you feel good. Note them down. What was their favourite comment? What was yours? Then, get them to pick out three key targets that they know they can work on over the coming months or into the new academic year. Small, achievable goals help move us forward and feel more in control of our lives, keep us motivated and provide a sense of accomplishment. It’s something we can all model. Don’t forget to praise them for being a resilient learner.
If you do hear them being unkind about themselves, or metaphorically beating themselves up, don’t simply soothe them or dismiss what they are saying. Instead, stay curious and critically encourage them to establish whether or not their comments towards themselves are justified. Inject some objectivity through open, exploratory questions which encourage them to search for evidence over any assumption and challenge their ‘gremlin’ thoughts. This could be, “Why do you think that? Can you tell me a little bit more”. “Where is the evidence for that?” or ‘“What would you say to a friend who said that about themselves?.” Typically, the evidence will be lacking, so it’s our job to help them to realise this.
For younger children, it can help to externalise any self-criticism as a bully or a ‘gremlin’ because this allows your child to challenge and stand up to it, rather than believing that it is part of them (they could even try drawing it). Thinking about what that nasty, mean, whispering gremlin looks like may also aid the discussion. Thinking about how to respond to our gremlins (“Hey gremlin! That isn’t true!” or, ‘Talk to the hand, gremlin!” or, “Nope! I’m choosing to ignore you!”) can make for a fun and creative family conversation.
Eventually, children and young people might be able to work out what helps them to ignore, or push aside, these thoughts as they arise, whether that’s doing a hobby they love, reading a good book, listening to some favourite music, thinking of a compliment that someone gave them, exercising, chatting to a friend or simply enjoying the natural world. Self-acceptance is something that is definitely worth celebrating! Gratitude can help reframe disappointment. If our children are healthy and happy, apologies for the cheesy cliché, but that is the greatest prize of all.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Before you file away those school reports, we have the perfect activity to get children thinking about all that they’ve achieved throughout the year and nudge them to make some plans and goals for the summer. It will help them to approach the summer with a sense of accomplishment and purpose ahead of the next academic year. If your child does need some help with gremlin thoughts, our activity for younger children encourages them to draw their gremlin. We also have some simple strategies to help manage negative self-talk.
Our mindset boosting template will help children take stock of all the things that are going well in their lives and evaluate their progress, as well as identify areas for improvement and parents with teens might like to encourage their children to use our 14 day Wellbeing Journal over the summer. It’s full of activities designed to nudge them to reflect on their experiences and achievements, and build resilience.
If you are looking for some summer ideas to occupy your children or teens at least some of the time, we have curated a list of the best fun and educational activities available. Looking for something more quirky? Check out our top 10 informative, exhilarating and creative days out for tweens and teens this summer.
On a different note, the academic term may be ending, but we still have some fantastic webinars coming up over the next couple of weeks. Spaces on our exciting panel event on ADHD (this Thursday lunchtime) are filling up. Don’t forget to book your place. You can also join us tonight for a webinar on PTSD and trauma, or on Friday to learn more about tackling prejudice with expert Bennie Kara. Next week, we have sessions on raising resilient teens, and supporting young people heading to university. We hope to see you there!