I Thought Participation Trophies Were Lame Until My Son Got A ‘Pre-Kindergarten Diploma’

Flickr / Paul Schultz
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A few weeks ago my oldest son “graduated” from preschool. What does this mean exactly? Where we live in San Mateo, CA, entry to kindergarten is based strictly on age. If the child turns 5 years of age prior to September 1, he or she attends kindergarten. If not, then not.

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Amazingly, there’s no flexibility here. Born on September 2 and already reading and doing math? Sorry, wait till next year. You’ll be bored out of your mind, but rules are rules. Born in August and struggling with maturity issues? Sorry, you’re in. Have fun being younger and smaller than everyone else. Just try not to have a breakdown at school — even young children can smell weakness.

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I know what you’re thinking — just don’t send your kid to kindergarten until next year. Great idea, but sadly the district has thought of that too. Send your kid a year late, and they put them straight into first grade. If they weren’t ready for kindergarten last year, surely they’re ready for first grade this year, right? Brilliant!

So that rant aside, it appears that the primary box you have to check to “graduate” from preschool to kindergarten is to complete 5 full rotations around the sun. That sounds impressive on it’s face, but it’s sort of what you might call automatic. I even have a few houseplants that have pulled it off.

My son’s diploma doesn’t even say “Preschool Diploma.” It says “Pre-Kindergarten Diploma.” So it’s not really an acknowledgement of finishing something, but I guess finishing the preparation for something?

His pre-kindergarten diploma? He hasn’t asked to see it again. Not once.

Nowadays I’m told they give out trophies to everyone who participates in a sporting event. Which is fine to a point, even if it’s not how real life works. But a “Pre-Kindergarten Diploma” is like getting a trophy for preparing to participate. “Nice job stretching Johnny! You’re really ready for this game to start! Here’s a trophy! Don’t worry, you’ll get another one when this game is over. This is just the pre-participation trophy”

I’m all for honoring our kids, and gush praise onto mine for just about everything. The enthusiasm my wife and I show for random scribbled colors on a page, or balls thrown backwards, or getting more food into their mouth than on the floor would annoy the most chipper among you. But pre-kindergarten diplomas? Are we maybe taking this a bit too far?

I was at the graduation, in the center of the parent paparazzi, cheering and taking video. I gave my son a congrats and a high-five. But all he really wanted to do was take off his medal (yup…they got medals), eat some pizza, and run around in circles on the grass with his friends.

He’s 4 (he actually won’t complete his fifth rotation around the sun until after kindergarten starts, but before that precious Sept 1 cutoff), but already seemed to understand that this graduation wasn’t really a big deal. He gets much more excited when he draws a cool picture or conjures up a funny song. He’ll sing that song and tell the story of it’s invention for days. And if he beats you in crazy-8s or Chutes & Ladders, watch out. Anyone and everyone we cross paths with will learn of his dominance. Said another way, he’s proud of small but tangible things that he’s done. Which is awesome.

His pre-kindergarten diploma? He hasn’t asked to see it again. Not once. And he never mentions the ceremony unless prompted, and even then won’t elaborate.

My son loves his preschool. And we love it too. He’s challenged, and he’s learning to love learning. The teachers are amazing, and they’ve helped shape him into the incredible tiny person he’s become. And while he takes great pride in his daily accomplishments at the school, the graduation just didn’t seem like a big deal to him.

Maybe inherently he knows that it’s the other things — the drawing, the singing, the throwing — that he should be most proud of. Maybe he’s knows it’s really the effort and not the results that matter. Or maybe the diploma just didn’t have enough funny pictures on it to catch his attention.

Regardless, I’m so stinking proud of all my kids. And when they’re old enough to get real participation trophies, I’ll be loudly bragging and showing them off to anyone who’ll listen.

Joe Godfrey is a husband, father, technology guy and re-aspiring athlete.

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