Graduation Inflation

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Last week I stood with a hundred weepy, videotaping parents as we watched our children graduate. The kids were shiny and scrubbed, and as they mounted the stage they wobbled on platform shoes, fiddled with new neckties and tried to control their flyaway hair. Meanwhile, the parents tried to control their flyaway emotions. The ceremony was the culmination of two weeks of nonstop parties and events during which the graduates were congratulated on their stellar achievements. Now my daughter and her fellow grads, diplomas in hand, look forward to a stress-free summer, followed by the rigors of seventh grade.

That's right. Seventh grade.

Given all the pomp and circumstance, I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was fairly unmoved by my daughter's sixth-grade graduation. These days--when 9 out of 10 kids actually make it through high school--matriculating into seventh grade just doesn't feel to me like a diploma-worthy experience.

Lately, it seems, our kids are always graduating from something. This month is crowded with rituals as kids finish up Tumble Tots, nursery school, kindergarten, third grade, middle school, piano class, Sunday school and the soccer season.

We seem to think that graduating validates every experience--even for those way too young to understand the significance of the occasion, not to mention use the toilet. Alana Glatzer, director of the Intown playgroup, a pre-nursery school in Washington, told me that the group's ceremony, complete with caps and diplomas for two-year-olds, is a chaotic and happy affair for the diaper-wearing graduates. "The kids don't always understand what's going on," she says, "but it's really for the parents."

Kids' lives are crowded with trophies and awards--the computer-generated commendatory certificates blow through my house like ticker tape; they get underfoot and gather on the floor of the car. All of this is part of "achievement inflation," and I think it may actually diminish the intended effect of all this acclamation, which is to make kids feel proud and accomplished for doing something difficult and important. Peter L. Sheras, professor of child development at the University of Virginia, says that while "the idea of celebrating life events can be really useful, we are becoming addicted to celebrating." He adds, "It's part of the dulling down of our experiences. When you make a big deal of something too often, then when big deals really happen, they seem less significant."

At my house, all the hoopla has created a blase middle schooler who has more diplomas than our dentist and a serious case of graduation fatigue. Recently, when she sighed and asked what we were doing this summer, I said, "I have one word for you: plastics."

You can e-mail Amy Dickinson at