I served as a judge for the 43rd annual Miss Okra pageant, and I’ll tell you what — there are some mighty talented young ladies around here. This year’s winner, Miss Louella Rae Lopperhooper grabbed my vote when she appeared on stage wearing a stunning green gown, the exact color of ripe okra. She looked like a radiant pod of the gods.
During the pageant, the 47 contestants stepped to the microphone and told the standing room only audience their favorite way to eat okra (fried was by far the most popular, with pickled a close second), then told us about their achievements. Many mentioned playing soccer or tennis, two played the harmonica, one made puppets, and eighteen twirled the baton. Three raised show cows, and four said their special gift from God was texting.
What crossed my mind, as I doodled okra cartoons on the score sheet, was how we reward and encourage our children’s activities instead of personal attributes. These girls defined themselves as what they did, not what they valued.
Not everyone can be first chair violinist in the all-county symphony. Not everyone can get a baseball scholarship, but somewhere in the mix of growing up with hundreds of choices and opportunities, our children need to know that what really matters are their unseen inner qualities.
If they love football, but keep running to the wrong end zone, a good coach or parent will point them in the right direction, but also mention their hard work ethic and the fact that they never give up. Working hard will pay off a lot more in the future than the memory of a touchdown.
Miss Sallie Jane said her 1967 home economics class was her favorite because despite setting off the school’s fire alarm when she made cheese toast, and running her finger through the sewing machine, which caused the school nurse to faint and knock her tooth out, the teacher still said Sallie Jane had the sweetest spirit of anyone else in the Future Homemakers of America. Sallie Jane beamed at the compliment and therefore gave the teacher her best effort and eventually went on to raise a healthy and happy family, without ever burning down the house.
All the extracurricular activities are fine, as long as we also stress and celebrate the winning characteristics in children that don’t necessarily require a team, rehearsals or competitions. Would you rather have a neighbor whose parents encouraged him to score the most points in a soccer game when he was in the 4th grade, or who cheered on his thoughtfulness and honesty? What is it we really value, and why aren’t we encouraging and rewarding those things as much as brawn and beauty?
If you think children don’t know when we’re just patting them on the head with a token award, go look in their rooms the year after they got the big, shiny “participation” trophy. That award has been shoved to the back of the closet, yet the note the teacher wrote thanking them for being such a kind friend to the new student is carefully folded and placed in their treasure box. They know when we are being sincere and value a true compliment.
Our words of encouragement for personal characteristics shape a child’s future more than fake awards. When I bragged on my son for being patient and helpful with a special-needs friend, he was then eager to help him with great compassion many more times.
I’d like to judge another pageant where the contestants list accomplishments like, “I think quickly in an emergency,” or “I’m able to cheer up sad friends,” or “I am kind to animals.” But of course, if they fry the best okra, I’ll still give them a few extra points.
This story first appeared in The Press-Register, The Birmingham New, The Huntsville Times and The Mississippi Press