It starts with a top-secret alert on our school’s messaging app: “Your child is receiving an award next week … please help us celebrate your child by joining us in the cafeteria. Keep it a secret.”

My husband and I rearrange our work schedules so we can be present when our 6-year-old receives his mysterious award. I drive through heavy traffic and ponder what it will be — a leadership award? An academic award? A behavior award?

My feelings on all of these awards are complicated. I’ve seen behavior charts that make my children anxious because they want so badly to impress their teachers. I’ve seen kids — mine and others — overlooked, time and time again, for leadership awards because even if they try their hardest to “impress,” they can’t quite reach the spotlight. Or because they have a hurdle to cross that means trying their hardest will never be enough to merit a behavior award. This bothers me — a parent with ADHD and Tourette’s syndrome, whose natural state is not sitting still in any setting — the most.

I set those feelings aside, though, as I walk into the hot, crowded cafeteria, where parents and grandparents jockey for a place to take videos or pictures of their little ones receiving a yet-unknown honor. I know my child will be thrilled to receive an award, no matter what it is. He will hug the award and jump up and down and grin with excitement.

And if he received no award, he likely would be disappointed for a moment. He would feel it in that same deep place where he feels, at age 6, confusion over how to bridge the gap between getting the orange stamp on his behavior chart each day that shows he has done nothing wrong, and getting the purple stamp that means he has done extra things right.

No matter, though, because today he will receive an award. He will be pleased for a moment, and then we will move on. He will remember that he enjoyed the spotlight, even if it wasn’t quite clear why.

We sit through the kindergartners, the first-graders and the second-graders receiving their academic improvement awards. I ponder how many of the children who don’t receive those awards are being underserved, or not challenged enough. I ponder how many are struggling with learning issues that haven’t been recognized or diagnosed.

It’s hotter now. More crowded. The kids are loud and the adults are sometimes louder.

Then we reach the awards for leadership and behavior, recognizing those kids who are shining beacons of success, for a moment. My camera finger twitches; I prepare to snap a picture of my little one’s face when he is surprised, then pleased. I prepare to let him shine, and to celebrate him for the evening. At the same time, I prepare to teach him compassion and an understanding that these awards, while fun, don’t feel good to those who are overlooked.

His name is not called for leadership.

His name is not called for behavior.

I am humbled, and realize that despite my best intentions, I got caught up in the excitement of the ceremony.

His name is called for the final category: perfect attendance. My husband and I look at each other. We have no idea whether he has had any sick days this year. Last year, in kindergarten, he missed countless days. As a new public school kid, he caught everything: stomach bugs, strep throat (twice!), unexplained fevers and runny noses.

Apparently this isn’t an issue, this year. But honestly, we haven’t been paying attention. Even he is surprised. We see him gesture at himself, mouth “Me? Did you call my name?”

He is pleased as punch. He runs up and gets his award. He smiles for the camera and grins when he sees us in the audience. I’m filled with love, and I’m content that my little guy is so proud and happy, despite my deep-seated concerns about these awards in general. I’m wondering, though, how not being selected impacts kids during a time when mental health issues and anxiety in children are running rampant.

And I can’t overlook the fact that this award is silly at best, and ableist at worst. A throwback to the 1970s, and for no apparent reason. Because here’s the truth: Children have nothing to do with whether they have perfect attendance.

The guilt I feel at mentally raining on my little one’s parade is overshadowed by the thought of the message we are sending to our children, which was summed up best, perhaps, by one of the teachers in the assembly (and I say this with the caveat that I love teachers, I was once a teacher, my children have amazing teachers, and this was a teacher of older children who was clearly speaking tongue-in-cheek): “I have three recipients of this award this year,” he said. “Kids who came to school every day because they love school, and, of course, they love me!”

The parents chuckle — we know he is joking. But the younger kids won’t — can’t — know this.

What about the little ones who were out sick or have ongoing medical needs? Are they squirming in their seats, wondering why they are being told they love school less?

What about families who miss school for emergencies, to grieve a loss, or take care of their mental health? What message are we sending kids by celebrating these awards at the same time many of us are trying to convince more companies to have better paid family leave policies, more sick days and paid mental health days?

While I will continue to have questions about all these awards, especially for our youngest children, it’s time to let perfect attendance awards become a thing of the past. High-waist jeans, scrunchies and crop tops may move in and out of style, but celebrating perfect attendance in elementary school needs to go out of fashion. Let’s stop rewarding our children for things out of their control.

Rebecca Swanson lives in Colorado with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @RebeccaLSwanson.

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