Enough With the Ceremonies! Can We Just Be Real?

By Shane Trotter

We’ve made it through another May! With school wrapping up, families rev into overdrive. Our society’s compulsion to celebrate and sensationalize every arbitrarily assigned group participation manifests in a hellish torrent of non-stop self-aggrandizing and inauthentic ceremony. Each moment of shared space now warrants fan fair comparable to the Oscars. Every modicum of adversity and every cute utterance from a youth warrants a raucous standing ovation. “They’re so brave.” Reality and free time are the casualties of a social media induced obsession with self-promotion and constantly curated image.

In May, you can say goodbye to family dinners and any illusions you may have about taking the kids camping. Monday night is the senior awards ceremony. Tuesday is your sophomore’s baseball banquet. Wednesday, the teachers’ banquet. Thursday, the Student Council Banquet. Friday is Suzy’s end of year field trip for her athletic training class. Saturday is your niece’s college graduation and party. Finally, your third grader has a volleyball banquet on Sunday- Mother’s Day. Next week is prom, senior clap-outs, more graduations and a seemingly endless gauntlet of pomp and circumstance.

Each of the formalities has the same conveyor of self-congratulations. The same self-absorbed host, pretending it isn’t really about them.  They wax prolific, abusing the same tired clichés: “she always had a smile on her face”- “their success is because of you”-“in this chapter of your lives”- “on this journey,” blah, blah, blah. We can hardly distinguish the truly exceptional from the mass of inflated recognition. Buzzwords like “character” are thrown around regardless of actions. The entire event is a dog and pony show aimed to eliminate any possibility of parent complaints, which are sure to follow anyway.

It’s all a show we put on; a feel good spin distracting from the reality that each presentation is the same, while growing a little more over the top every year. It’s something else to Tweet, to Instagram, to Snapchat, to create a highlight reel for people we don’t really know.

So what if people want to have a celebration? Why am I being so rude? The truth matters. Substance matters. Family dinners matter. Our time, stolen for a million unnecessary formalities, matters. Authenticity, intentional time investment, deep conversation, and self-reflection matter.

We’re so busy keeping up with the Jones’s by dreaming up more and more ceremonies that we’ve forgotten the obvious- the things we do should be worthwhile on their own merit. Students don’t play soccer so that the coach can tell them how special they are. They play because they love soccer and learn from working in teams. The reward for education should be obvious and inherent. Instead we’ve created a watered down educational system more concerned with pushing graduation rates to 100% than on preparing a great generation with the lessons they need to build fulfilling lives. There is a reason for all these things we spend our lives doing. What is real is the process, not the image of exaggerated importance we’re trying to cultivate. We shouldn’t be driven by the recognition. We shouldn’t create the expectation that each normal human activity deserves celebration.

There is a bigger reason to squelch this inferno of ceremony: our society’s lack of authenticity stokes a growing spiritual crisis. Constant celebrations promote the deeply ungratifying, perception-obsessed environment wreaking havoc on American emotional health. Today’s youth live in an online world. Fewer than ever feel deep bonds. They’re content to live on their phones, constantly crafting an image rather than experiencing life. Emotional connection, only possible through shared physical experience and purpose, is becoming less common. As more people live online, reality and truth are hardly considered. Groups are polarized, living in echo-chambers that fuel phony outrage and ego, concerned only with perception.

Dr. Jean Twenge, author of iGen and The Narcissism Epidemic, has studied generational trends. She believes we’re seeing a stark increase in narcissism and social alienation. Twenge notes that, “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.” Occupational Therapist, Victoria Prooday is deeply concerned by the parenting trends that dominate youth development today. In her piece, Reasons Today’s Kids are Bored at School, Feel Entitled, Have Little Patience & Few Real Friends, Prooday explains the tremendous issues that stem from this increasingly unrealistic world. Kids are less autonomous, while more celebrated than ever. They get everything they want the moment they want it, dictate to their parents what foods they’ll eat, expect to be constantly entertained, and despite ubiquitous social media, have very limited social interactions. It is the manifestation of a failed self-esteem movement that precludes self-actualization, purpose, and maturity.

Sure, there is research to support praising effort, but our ceremony culture has gone far past that. We’ve suspended reality in favor of image and, in the process, cheapened experience and the purpose behind our actions. We’re so busy commenting, judging, and spinning everything that we lose sight of reality. Everyone is advertising, numb to the obvious deception in their marketing. No one even balks at insane claims: “I don’t care what anyone says, these are the best kids in the country!”, or “I’m convinced we have the best teachers in the world.” The gap between what we say we are and what we actually are grows by the day. Everyone knows it, yet we all smile politely.

When the point of everything is recognition, we chase empty accolades and status symbols rather than contribution, connection, authenticity, and purpose. We create Russell Westbrook, intent only to win the MVP, while driving his teammates crazy and his teams to underachievement. Narcissism drives students away from responsibility and towards a growing obsession on what they feel entitled to. Youth development should actively promote the concepts of process and effort, rather than outcome and validation. To quote Robin Williams character in The Dead Poet’s Society: “We don’t study poetry to get an ‘A’, to graduate, to get a job, to make money, to meet material needs. Rather, we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.” Passion is in your projects, not the planned celebration for your project.

Here is the truth- more often than not, you are not that special. Sure, society has you convinced that your plight is unfathomable. Between an imperfect family, social media “haters,” not being “naturally good at school,” and watching privileged kids get nicer cars and easier jobs, it is amazing Lifetime hasn’t already called to make a movie about your story. We are obsessed with feeding our fragile egos and so obsessed with the concept of self-esteem that we live our lives in a revolving door of inauthentic praise, lavish awards, and inflated interpretations of the most menial of tasks. Let’s call it like it is: If you don’t graduate high-school, you quit. Public schools are obsessed with parent appeasement and will go to great lengths to make sure you graduate. Graduation should be expected- it signifies not quitting.

The reality is life has never been more comfortable, convenient, or filled with luxury. Upbringings marked by blue collar labor and family responsibilities have been replaced by constant entertainment and kids who expect iPhones and gas money. Despite this, our kids are increasingly depressed, anxious, obese, suicidal, and drug addicted.

Still, it is not the graduates fault. It isn’t the elementary kid’s fault. It is the parents who have made these recognitions the entire point of life. It is the culture of “lawnmower parents,” intent to bring Junior Chik-Fil-A for lunch every day, contact teachers every time he forgets to study, buy him a brand-new truck when he turns 16, and keep him on the payroll long after he graduates college. The reason they act like selfish children is that is who you trained them to be. You’ve given them every excuse, humored every tantrum, and dramatized every menial achievement. I know you love them, but their fulfillment and self-actualization depends on them facing challenge and overcoming adversity. The role of the parent is to see their heroic capability and supportively mold them into strong, resilient, capable citizens inclined to contribute to something greater than themselves. This is hard to do when you and they both agree that they are the center of the universe.

Furthermore, when you never tell Junior no, buy him a BMW, and move schools because his coach didn’t name him MVP, it is Junior who suffers. He’s becoming unlikable and developing impossible expectations. Each challenge becomes an oppressive affliction and he grows incapable of the resiliency and honesty that real success is predicated upon.

The problem isn’t that our kids are challenged, it is that they expect not to be challenged. Grades are inflated, while celebrations multiply exponentially. But these only serve to distract from our cultural failings in youth development. College costs more than ever and Junior is more likely than ever to move home afterward. At some point, he will have to contend with these realities.

We strive to give the kids we love the superficial outcomes we want for them. But, this eliminates their opportunity to develop the skills that those outcomes were supposed to indicate mastery of. None of the outcomes actually matter. Processes, learning, and the ability to creatively adapt and overcome matter. Grades are arbitrary. Growth and new ways of thinking matter. When we eliminate the stimulus for these things in an attempt to give outcomes to all, we eliminate the opportunity to become more. It is the meanest possible thing you can do to someone.

But, what about those who really were impressive, hard-working kids?They know they are doing the right things whether there is a ceremony or not. Furthermore, effort and persistence should be the expectation. Let’s not pretend a kid who studies for tests and gets A’s has done something transcendent. It’s their job. Learning is fruitful in and of itself. They are giving themselves opportunities, creating understanding and interests that make them capable of being interesting, and building the skills that are essential to thriving. Sure, they had to overcome obstacles. What moderately successful person doesn’t overcome obstacles all the time? Kyle Maynard is a quadriplegic who has climbed Mount Kilamanjaro without prosthetics. He didn’t do it for the celebration. He did it for the experience. He did it because attacking big goals is where passion, purpose, and peak existence lay. He credits his persistence to people like his grandmother, who let him struggle for hours trying to figure out how to maneuver a sugar packet out of a jar, even while she could have thoughtlessly done it herself.

Instead of more pageantry, promote a radical pursuit of truth- dogged questing for real authentic experience. Reflexively quiet the noise and avoid cooked up ceremonial pressures. Instead, focus on those projects and pursuits that contribute and pull you towards growth- those authentic experiences of teamwork and connection. Ignore the manufactured planned moments and allow for the spontaneity that follows freedom. Have a T-Ball season without a trophy ceremony. You can still have fun and decide to take the youngsters out for ice cream or a pool party afterwards, but it doesn’t require a sign-up sheet and a competition to see which parent brings the most. Keep high school sports banquets under 2 hours including the meal. Tell your kids you love them and are proud of their efforts without feeling compelled to buy them something in commemoration. Make graduation a fun day, it is an achievement and the end of an era! Just care more about substance and experience than the illusion that these achievements warrant a knighthood. And please, remember that the diploma wasn’t the whole point.

Let’s be frank, the ceremony is mostly fanfare, an illusion sparsely relevant to reality and no one really cares. Just look at how many people are busy distracting themselves on their phone. Rather than stroking egos and delusions in this age of Narcissism, my approach actually teaches lessons. It prioritizes some most obvious truths- the world should not bend to your will and you get only one life. Therefore, whatever people spend their time on should have merit for its own sake.