Return of the Dunce Cap

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Fifteen minutes after publishing last night’s blog about my oldest daughter’s surprisingly well-adjusted approach to middle school, she wandered down from her bedroom clearly upset.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“This is so stressful,” tears were welling up in her eyes as she started rummaging through her backpack.  “I know I did all of my homework, but I feel like I forgot something.”

Since the start of the school year, this child has been terrified of getting the dreaded check mark.  One too many check marks means that she misses out on the monthly team party that her teacher’s throw for the good kids.

“I’ll be so embarrassed if everyone else gets to go.”  This is her greatest fear.  Having to stand on the sidelines, watching her classmates party and have fun while staring and pointing at her – the bad kid.  In her mind, this is the equivalent of being forced to sit center-stage wearing a dunce cap while each student and teacher takes their turn telling her what a bad student she is.  Hrumph.

I finally convinced her that she had completed all of her work and was in no danger of getting a check mark.  Exhausted, she went off to bed and, fortunately, she went off to school seemingly happy and ready for a new day today.

After sending my oldest off to school this morning, I sat down with my youngest who had a strange request.  “Can I skip gymnastics next week?”  I was immediately baffled.  She loves gymnastics.  Stranger still, she was scheduled to go to gymnastics later today so, why was she anticipating the need to skip it next week and not today?  I asked her as much.

“The coaches are going to give ice cream to all of the kids who get their splits perfect on Tuesday.”  She was clearly convinced that she was not going to be in the group of ice-cream-eating kids, and she desperately wanted to avoid being singled out as one of the imperfect kids.  Again, Hrumph!

My husband and I are not competitive people and we don’t push our kids to be competitive.  The message and expectation in our home is clear:  do your best.  That’s it.  That’s all we ask of our kids.  Go out and do your best at school, in sports, with friends, at life.  I want my kids to love learning and I want them to be happy in whatever they choose to do outside of their school day.  I don’t want them to feel some real or imagined pressure to be the best, or to be perfect, at every single moment of every single day in every single thing they do – especially at the age of 8 and 11.  That constant pressure – that constant weight of perfection – will undoubtedly turn them into small, twisted, anxiety-ridden little people who will eventually require a daily dose of medication to get through their day.  That’s not my wish for them.

Today, what is it that makes me happy?  Truthfully, this dunce cap approach to encouraging my kids to do well does not make me happy in the least, and it is challenging my ability to find the happy today.  I suppose I’m happy that I do have good kids who want to do well – with or without the threat of a dunce cap.




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