My twins bounded out of camp, leaping into my arms with smiles, but as soon as we got into the car, one burst into tears. The other held a small gold coin in her hand lifted high, and chanted “I got one, I got one!” 

I inquired. Turns out, this camp I’d sent my daughters to has a gold-coin reinforcement system. When children “did things to help each other,” “caught at least ten water skeeters,” “won games” or “seemed like they were going above and beyond” they were awarded a shiny gold coin. 

My head and my heart about exploded as I learned about this limited-reward system- there were many more children than there were gold coins available. This was confirmed by the camp director, who shared that only a certain number of coins were available each day… that number was way less than the number of attending children. The system itself was set up to have  some children win and be seen and be celebrated, while others were not. 

Such inequitable recognition broke my heart in half. My mind, too, was shattered- because there is so much research that illustrates how reward based programs, especially those that have unclear systems of recognition based on what an assigned adult sees or doesn’t see tend to inflame relationships of inequity (read: straight white boy children from higher socio-economic status are the most likely to be recognized). Some of the things the research tells us about these sorts of systems that stand out to me include: 

  • Setting up a situation so that a child does things in order to receive accolades (things) over presence (noticing, being together, celebrating) tend to produce a situation in which a child does things for extrinsic reward, as opposed to doing things for intrinsic reasons and in order to give back to relationships and others (for more on this, see Shanker’s work on Self-Reg  and Kazdin’s work on parenting and Kohn’s work on grades). 

  • Children thrive when 97%+ of their behavior management is focused on growing what they are already working well with (see Dan Seigel’s work on parenting, Brené Brown’s parenting essay series, Shanker’s work on self-reg, and Dweck’s work on resiliency and competition versus effort). 

  • Focus on competition, winning, and being a “winner” or being “the best” (as evidenced in the gold coin system, for example) results in significantly lower resiliency over time, and children who experience decreased interest in trying something new, persisting with challenge, and developing a growth mindset- defined by the capacity to persist and grow from failure and challenge  (see work by Dweck on Mindset and Duckworth on Grit). 

I felt hot and broken inside as my little girl described between sobs “the boys won the race, and they got coins. Sister got a lot of water skeeters, and she got a coin. I helped with everything like cleaning up but no one noticed.” I wanted to scream ALL CHILDREN CAN BE RECOGNIZED FOR THINGS, NOT JUST FOR BEING THE FASTEST RUNNERS OR THE BEST BUG CATCHERS!!!! Worse, I was extremely alert to and worried about the ways in which historical inequities along lines of race, gender, sexuality and class were being entrenched by this capitalist system. Lots of research tells us that without clear guidelines and supported leadership, the children most likely to be seen, valued, and rewarded are able-bodied, white, boy-children.  For more information on this, please see extensive research on critical race theory in education, especially by bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Eve Tuck, and Patricia Hill-Collins. 

And yet- for all the warnings and research by these scholars, for all the ways I’ve immersed myself in this scholarship and praxis- here I found myself, with my own children wrapped up in a reward system based on what a single person can notice (which of course, is limited and hopelessly biased…). What is even worse is that when we set up systems like this, we prime our educational leaders to enact racialized and gendered systems of oppression. When we rely on arbitrary judgements of counselors and professionals who have not received deep training in dismantling the inequitable systems of race, gender, sexuality, and class to award gold coins based on their own judgement we set everyone up for inequity. The judgement of any single person in this system is likely to be laced with harmful and sometimes unconscious bias, privileging certain children & actions… and missing others entirely. As a white educational leader myself, I witness the ways in which again and again, leaders are in positions of power without the supports that help them to disable systems that make our most vulnerable children- immigrant kids, kids that experience violence, children of color, girls, trans kids, queer kids- even more vulnerable. We need people of color, queers of color, feminists of color, rabble-rousers, contra-sayers and most importantly YOUTH in positions of power. And we need supported and ongoing training to dismantle bias and privilege and birth new ways of learning. As I watched my girls of color (two and three full years younger than many of the white boys who got coins for running the fastest- this was their understanding of why the boys got coins… and their understanding matters) narrate their experience of not being noticed, my heart squeezed. 

There is quite solid evidence to suggest that children who are rewarded for helping each other, participating collaboratively, and supporting their peers in fact- do more of that. On the other hand, when reward systems position children as “winning” or “losing” young people are instead set up to fight for reward, to resent each other, and to boast and brag. Oodles of contemporary research, carried out in schools, camps, and families would suggest that reward systems tend toward the negative (see Shankar, Dweck, Seigel, Duckworth, Kohn, Hauge, Tuck, Hill-Collins, hooks, and many more).

The morning after this incident, I walked into camp to discuss with the camp director. A little white boy of 7 or 8 approached me and my children, holding his gold coins up high. “Look, I got more than everyone!” His counselor followed, looking to me and saying “I’m trying to tell him not to do that.” But this little one was doing nothing wrong: he was persisting in the environment the adults had set up for him: one of competition, winning, scarcity, and better than. After all, just after this incident, in response to my offer to run to the dollar store and buy enough gold coins to recognize every single child at camp that day for something, the director replied “that would defeat the purpose of the coins.” 

I sucked my teeth, my breath taken from me. This is the environment we set up for our children. 

If we want something else, we must demand it. In this scenario though, I knew that with so little shared paradigm, I’d likely be unable to help these people recognize all children- even if I bought all the gold coins in the world… for surely, every single child there deserved them. 

I have enrolled my children in a different camp moving forward. Incidentally, they are now mentored by a fourteen year old. She is learning too. They play with children of a range of abilities. They report back to me “mama, she has the same skin color as me!” They share back “she can’t run, but she can….” They tell me “that boy doesn’t talk to anyone, but he does talk to me.” And my eyes fill as I witness them being appreciated for being the whole hearted kids they are- at the same time as they are so viscerally learning to appreciate difference. 

This is social justice change in children’s programming.