School Attendance Awards Are A Terrible Idea

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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If there is one thing I love about parenthood, it’s getting mixed messages. I fucking love it, don’t you? “Take care of Mom!” we hear, but also, “You have to breastfeed, don’t let your baby cry, and really, if you do anything that allows you even a moment of peace, you’re kind of a shit mom.” Or how about, “Stop coddling your kids! Let them learn to survive in the world!” but also, if you let your kids play outside alone or—heaven forbid—walk home from school like we all did growing up, you’re likely to hear CPS knock on your door.

We can. not. win.

And school is just another place parents get conflicting messages, which just add to the ever-growing stress of modern day parenthood. For example, any parent who sends their sick kid to school is a giant asshole. Like immediately branded. Even pre-COVID, if you let your boogery kid or your kid who had a bellyache attend school, and those boogers turned into a fever and that bellyache turned into the stomach flu, you’re on the blacklist. Even if you thought it was just a cold or your kid just ate too many donuts the day before.

We get it, germs are bad. It sucks when kids infect their teachers or other kids. So we got the memo—stay home.

But wait.

Oftentimes the same school districts that enforce strict “stay at home if you’re sick” policies (which we agree, are sensible and keep kids and staff healthier) also have equally strict attendance policies. For example, I have a friend in Texas who must provide a doctor’s note if her kids are absent more than two consecutive days or else they run the risk of unexcused absences and penalties.


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Ummmm what? How about the fact that kids get viruses or bugs that last several days all the time? Illnesses that don’t necessitate a doctor’s visit, but rather just required staying home, getting plenty of fluids, and resting. Or can we talk about the expense of going to the doctor and how that’s not something families with no insurance or high deductibles can just do because the school demands it?

For example, my kids have never had the ear infections or strep throat that plagued so many of their peers. They always got “viruses” instead that really couldn’t be helped with antibiotics. They’d get fevers that lasted a few days, fatigue, coughs, runny noses, etc., but I learned after the first few rushed trips to the doctor, where the pediatrician sent us home with the “it’s a virus—you’ll have to wait it out” prognosis, to do just that. I stopped taking my kids to the doctor when they came down with a bug that we’d seen before, especially if they were still keeping food and fluids down and their fevers were responding to Tylenol or ibuprofen.

Had I been in a district with a strict attendance policy like that district in Texas, I may have been forced to drag my sick kids in to an unnecessary doctor’s appointment where they’d spread their germs, and pick up new germs. We’d have to pay yet another doctors bill, and be told to “go home, rest, and wait it out”—all for a note to appease their school.

And here’s the real kicker—my kids aren’t chronically ill. I can’t imagine what a nightmare, logistically and financially, it must be for parents with chronically ill children who attend schools with such rigid attendance policies. Parents who already have far more exhausting and expensive daily challenges than the average parent does also have to worry about their child being penalized by the school rather than just focusing on their child getting better.

Also, this country is finally—FINALLY—talking about mental health. We know that mental health is as important as physical health. And that they are interconnected. Workplaces are implementing more and more changes to their “sick time” policies, allowing for “mental health” days.

Furthermore, the pandemic brought to the forefront the importance of mental health in kids. Society is starting to see that this isn’t just an issue among adults. We see the impact isolation has had on our kids’ mental health, and we see that our kids, like adults, suffer from anxiety and depression and compulsive thoughts. We know that just like adults sometimes need a mental health day, so do kids.

And yet. We still have strict attendance policies, and we still have schools giving out attendance awards for kids who are lucky enough to not be chronically ill. Kids who are lucky enough to not have parents who are chronically ill and can get them to school on time every day.

This thread from Twitter user @chronicparent30 highlights just how problematic these “awards” are.

Because honestly, what is this school awarding? Good immune systems? Going to school even when you are sick? Having parents with reliable transportation? Having parents with traditional working hours that don’t interfere with their ability to get their kids to school?

Let’s be real. Attendance awards cater to kids who come from stable homes. And they make kids feel like shit who don’t. Kids who come from poverty and can’t always get to school due to a myriad of reasons that aren’t their fault. Same for kids who are chronically ill.

Listen, we all know that our kids won’t win every award. It’s a good thing for our children to see other kids achieve in something that maybe they don’t. A math competition, a spelling bee, the science fair, an art contest. And hopefully those awards are doled out fairly—to kids who studied, worked hard, and earned them.

But attendance awards and bizarrely specific attendance policies don’t reward kids for hard work or achievement. They reward kids who are lucky enough to have certain circumstances. And they send children the message that taking a day off for any reason—whether it’s because you’re down with the flu or you simply need to take a day off to recharge—is unfavorable.

Because here’s the truth. Although our society is finally realizing the importance of mental health, we are still very much a culture that thrives on us working ourselves into an early grave. Our country’s maternity leave policies are a joke compared to pretty much every other modernized nation. Paternity leave is still virtually non-existent. And employees often feel they’ll be penalized when it comes to promotions and raises if they take time off—for health reasons, family issues, or even a vacation.

Unfortunately, that message starts in America with our kids. It starts by awarding little Kayleigh a big fat ribbon and a walk across the stage in front of the whole school simply because she came to school every day. It starts by telling her classmate Michael that he’s going to get in trouble and his parents are going to get in trouble if he misses any more school, even though Michael’s home life and immune system and ability to even get to school are out of his control.

And that “you better show up, no matter what it takes” mentality carries right on through into adulthood, making adults work 100 hours a week, through illnesses. It makes new parents too nervous to take maternity and paternity leave. It makes employees feel they need to justify a day off with a “real” illness or doctor’s note, rather than simply saying, “I need a day off” with no other explanation needed. It makes adults feel like they should work through their vacations, and it makes the concept of “self-care” an unachievable notion.

That’s the message kids receive, as early as kindergarten. We need to do away with “attendance awards,” and we need to overhaul our attendance policies for children and adults so we can all get the care—mentally and physically—that we truly need.

Maybe instead we should give awards to schools and employers who promote self care. Who set the bar by encouraging their students and employees to take mental health days. To stay home if they are sick so they don’t infect others. To take maternity and paternity leave. And to not work themselves to death and not pass that mindset on to their kids.

It’s time to abolish “attendance awards” and start changing the messages we send to our kids. Their futures depend on it.

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