Opinion: If you give a student a cookie, will they want A in algebra next?

Students walk down the hall after Columbia High School's half-cap ceremony in Decatur on Thursday, May 16, 2024. The ceremony was for sophomores who are on track to graduate in two more years. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Students walk down the hall after Columbia High School's half-cap ceremony in Decatur on Thursday, May 16, 2024. The ceremony was for sophomores who are on track to graduate in two more years. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

If you give a student a cookie, will they then want a well-stocked snack drawer in class, an extension on their social studies paper and a reprieve from math homework?

That seems to be an increasing concern as I saw in the surprising reaction to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story on a mid-point graduation ceremony for 10th graders at DeKalb’s Columbia High School to encourage them to stay the course.

When I shared the story on the AJC Get Schooled Facebook page dedicated to education issues, I assumed readers would applaud the well-intentioned effort. In a district where about a quarter of freshmen won’t graduate in four years, who could fault a “half-cap” ceremony where DeKalb school board member Deirdre Pierce assured sophomores, “You are outstanding. You are brilliant. You have something the world is waiting for.”

Many commenters did approve of the event, but there was more skepticism that I would have predicted:

— “Dang, they just had a moving-in ceremony in eighth grade. Are they getting half of a diploma, too? These are the kids that feel entitled to go to college, not go to class, not do the schoolwork and expect they can turn it all in before grades are due.”

— ”This is the most ‘participation trophy’ generation I have ever seen. Like they can do nothing on their own without some type of reward for doing it?”

— ”These are teenage/almost grown adults that keep getting coddled like they’re babies. And then the same people who encourage this wonder why they aren’t successful in life. This may seem like a help, but it’s a disservice. (34-year retired teacher here).”

In the wake of post-pandemic policies designed to ease children into “normal” school, more educators are asking whether accommodating and extending grace to students has gone from help to hindrance. No longer is it an A for effort; it’s an A for just showing up.

It reminds me of the debate a few years ago around the “If You Give a Mouse” children’s series. In the original book, an increasingly emboldened mouse escalates from asking a boy for a cookie to milk, straw, napkin and much more. The boy exhausts himself serving the mouse’s needs that grow larger with each page.

My kids loved the series, but a few critics detected a devious undercurrent. The naysayers contend the books – which have expanded to a moose seeking a muffin, a cat hankering for a cupcake and a pig eying a pancake – celebrate a culture of dependency. A conservative economist even warned in The Washington Post several years ago that “If You Give a Mouse” is an ode to a welfare state, noting that someone has to pay for that cookie.

My favorite overreaction was a Reddit forum that pondered whether “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” is really about the gateways of addiction. And my favorite response on that forum: “No it’s a warning about a future girlfriend who asks to have a blanket on your couch, then a year later you live with her and another year later you marry her.”

I agree with the folks who maintain the books are lighthearted and scoff at any so-called secret agenda, which includes the author, Laura Numeroff, who conceived of the book on a long car trip 40 years ago and never thought it would be interpreted as an assault on self-reliance.

That said, there are a lot of cookies and treats being handed out. Kids are now feted when they graduate from pre-K, kindergarten, fifth grade, eighth grade and high school. Many schools, facing soaring absenteeism rates, now provide rewards to kids for showing up to class. Teachers complain the proliferation of rewards has led to students who pick up a pencil from the floor, put out their hand and ask, “Where’s my Skittle?”

Parents have long grappled with whether rewarding kids at every turn zaps their motivation to do a task well because they value the task and believe their behavior controls the outcome. As a longtime Emory clinical psychologist, Stephen Nowicki developed a psychology tool that measures the locus of control in children — whether they believe they determine their destinies and outcomes or whether they think it’s a matter of luck, fate, chance or the action of others.

Today’s students are much more likely to see themselves as prey to external factors, said Nowicki. “In the classroom, that gets translated to college students who get a bad grade not asking themselves ‘What did I do wrong?’ They come to their professors and say you need to teach me better,” he said.

Much of that reflects increasing parental attempts to shield kids from the risk of failure. In his half-century of working with families, Nowicki has seen a progression from helicopter parents who hover over their kids to snowplow parents who clear every obstacle in their child’s path, even students smart enough to earn a seat at Emory University.

“I have had more interactions with parents who contact me about their son or daughter in the last 10 years than I did in the first 40,” he said. “Parents don’t want their kids to fail. Students are bright now, but they don’t know how to handle failure because they haven’t been allowed to fail.”