Any parent with school-aged children likely understands the struggle that is sometimes involved in getting them to actually go everyday, so having a child bring home a perfect attendance award seems like it would be a big cause for celebration. But when British writer and blogger Rachel Wright's son recently won a free evening at a play center as a reward for never missing a day of school, she wasn't exactly thrilled. Wright ultimately decided against having her son receive the award, but the reasons why this mom won't let her son accept his perfect attendance award are incredibly important, and it's a conversation that seems really necessary.
According to TODAY Parents, the 40-year-old mom-of-three wrote on her Facebook page that after her middle son J.J. brought home the award, the two discussed the pros and cons, and opted to throw it away. And while that may have seemed unfair to J.J. (I mean, a free evening at a play center does sound pretty cool), Wright explained in her post that allowing her son to keep the award would have reinforced some pretty damaging beliefs about ableism that she definitely didn't want to perpetuate.
In the post, which has now been shared more than 13,000 times, Wright explained that there were four main reasons why she wasn't on board with the award, and they all made a lot of sense. For one, Wright argued that, well, J.J. didn't exactly earn his perfect record — she was the one who got him to school everyday, after all — and why reward him for something he didn't actually have anything to do with? And beyond that, the fact that he managed to avoid missing school due to illness really just came down to luck.
But more importantly, Wright argued that rewarding a child for their school attendance is incredibly misguided, and sends the message that missing school is always irresponsible. Sure, it's obviously important for children to go to school everyday, and missing class can have an impact on students' learning. Daily attendance also helps teach important skills like responsibility and work ethic, but emphasizing perfect attendance, Wright argues, really just stigmatizes illness:
In this family you are not shamed for ill health, vulnerability or weakness. ... In this house we look after ourselves and the weakest amongst us.
Can you imagine a work place that at the end of each week marked out all the people who hadn't been sick? Where all the departments with the least number of people off were rewarded — in front of everyone else? ... What on earth are we teaching our kids about value and worth? What are we teaching them about looking out for each other and looking after the sick or disabled in our community?
As a mom to another son with severe cerebral palsy, Wright knows quite well that, actually, there are plenty of other really good reasons why someone might miss school, and they shouldn't be judged for it — and it's a message that many parents whose children have disabilities likely appreciate.
My own school-aged daughter also has cerebral palsy, and while hers is a much more mild form, this year she's had to miss school a fair bit. Between unexpected colds and illnesses, and a variety of doctor's appointments, physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions, there were many days she either didn't attend, or made it only for the morning or afternoon. Her school was supportive and understanding, but I still felt guilty when they'd send letters home to parents about the importance of not missing class. And while my kindergartener might be too young to internalize that idea, soon, it's likely that she might feel bad or different when she realizes that she probably won't even come close to winning a perfect attendance award.
But the shame and stigma that can surround illness and disability certainly don't end when children leave school. Many adults who struggle with invisible chronic illnesses or mental health problems often feel like they can't (or shouldn't) disclose the difficulties that they are facing to their employers for the fear of being judged or seen as less valuable in the workplace. Yet the lack of support — and surely the sense that it's not OK to take time off, even if it's necessary — only makes that suffering worse.
Celebrating a child's perfect school attendance might seem fun and harmless, and it also supports the long-held conventional notion that kids should be pushed to attend school everyday no matter what. But while many commenters criticized Wright's post, it's not like she was arguing that school doesn't matter, or that kids should be able to stay home whenever they feel like it. Instead, she was giving a voice to the children (and adults) who are left feeling unnecessarily judged or inferior because of circumstances outside of their control, and encouraging greater understanding and compassion.
It might be difficult to let go of older ideas that might appear on the surface to make a lot of sense — what could be wrong with rewarding a kid for going to school everyday? — but sometimes those ideas ignore the experience of marginalized individuals. And by speaking up about it, parents like Wright are helping teach a valuable lesson about inclusivity that all children can benefit from.