Since I write children’s literature, I am often invited to judge competitions in which children have to submit their original stories or poems.
This is usually an interesting exercise, because children are amazingly bright, and think very creatively. After years of teaching creative writing to children, and reading stories and poems written by them, I have developed an unerring eye for differentiating a child’s original work from one written by, or dictated by a parent who desperately wants his or her child to win a prize at any cost. When I read a poem or a story written by a child, I always try to hear the writer’s voice, rather than concentrating on squiggly handwriting that’s hard to read, spelling mistakes, and errors in grammar and punctuation. This is not to say that I ignore carelessly written pages, but when one is six or seven years old, one’s thoughts unusually tend to race, and a pen or pencil gripped in a small hand has a hard time keeping up with the flow of words tumbling out from an imaginative mind. So, inevitably, a few vowels get dropped here and there, not to mention full stops. Commas are usually non-existent in a young child’s work! This style of ‘judging’ has inevitably led me into some rather uncomfortable situations.
On one occasion, an extremely resourceful parent managed, to not only find out that I had judged a competition, but came to confront me with her child’s entry, which she exclaimed loudly and aggressively ‘was far superior’ to the winning entry that she had unearthed, and carefully evaluated herself! I tried to soothe her ruffled ego by trying to tell her that her child’s entry had its merits too, but I soon discovered that this was definitely the wrong thing to say.
“Then why did you not give her a prize?” she asked me belligerently. The lesson I learnt from this encounter with a fierce, tiger mom was never to try and explain decisions made while judging a contest. Most contests always add in fine print that ‘the decisions of the judges are final.’ Parents of children competing in competitions would do well to remember, and respect this. They should not find fault with, and criticize the judges if their child does not win a prize in a competition. Instead of wailing and showing their disappointment to the child, and criticizing the efforts of other contestants, a parent should commend his or her child’s efforts in competing, and encourage him or her to try again.
In my creative writing classes, I always try to teach children the importance and the value of doing one’s own work, rather than getting someone else to do it, or copying someone else’s work so that they can ‘win’. I tell my students that I want to see them write about their own thoughts and ideas. This always elicits imaginative responses. I have not been so successful in getting small children to edit their own work.
On numerous occasions, after a story has been handed into me, I have suggested gently to a small writer, “Why don’t you read your story again and see if you can change anything, and make it better?”
“But I’ve finished it.” This answer, which I’ve heard countless times, is uttered in a tone of finality that I know I cannot challenge. A few of the more confident writers have even told me disarmingly, “but how can I make my story better? It’s already perfect!”
Judging writing contests means I get to read children’s original ideas. Some of these are so hilarious that they linger in my mind. Years ago, I judged an essay competition in which children had to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. The essays listed many occupations that had caught the children’s fancy – doctor, astronaut, fireman, movie star, and engine driver. But one young boy, obviously world-weary despite his tender age, and tired of the burden of never ending school work, homework, and extracurricular activities wrote truthfully, ‘When I grow up, I want to be RETIRED!’
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