Well, I thought about it. And I decided that, instead of using prizes for rewarding progress, what seems right to me is celebration.
What makes celebration different from prizes or even inherent rewards is it's essential communal and relational nature. It is further distinguished in being an activity performed in harmony rather than an object (or pronouncement) that is bestowed upon one person by another. In the acting together, we honor and affirm what we celebrate and experience joy communally. It is in this same sense that we "celebrate" the liturgy.
Recognizing that a kindergartener may need more proximate goals and celebrations than that far off "someday" when she can read any book in the library all by herself, I started looking for some smaller milestones we could celebrate together. Accordingly, this past Saturday, I took Katherine for a mom-and-daughter date to celebrate her successfully reaching the "half-way through Kindergarten" mark.
We walked down to the neighborhood nail spa together and got our nails done. While we were waiting for the polish to dry, we dove into Tales of the Kingdom. (The illustrations in the original hardcover printing had piqued her interest earlier when she found the book on her crowded bookshelf filled with both new and hand-me-down treasures.) Katherine seemed a little distracted by all that was going on in the salon, but she was still listening. When we left, she immediately started asking me to tell her more about the characters in the book. We tried stopping in for tea at the nearby bakery so we could continue reading, but the place was closed for refurbishment. After some discussion, we settled on Rubio's. We read until we were hungry for lunch and then enjoyed our tacos and read some more. Katherine was riveted by the Tales (and I cannot recommend them enough).
When we were home again and ready for naps, I prayed over Katherine aloud and thanked God for bringing her into my life and for helping her work diligently to finish the first half of Kindergarten. Then, as I tucked her into bed, I performed my familiar litany of affection over her with kisses and hugs: "I am so glad you were born to me. I am so glad I get to know you and be with you everyday. I love you so much. You are my special bonny, and I am so glad you are in my life." I could tell that she felt peaceful and loved and happy all the rest of the day.
Is all this attention and affirmation really different from praise? Perhaps it is merely a particular kind of praise, the kind of praise I can embrace because I find it to be authentic and loving and not manipulative. It's the kind of praise one would be able to freely give to a peer or even a superior without fear of being pedantic or condescending. It's a praise that is actively with the other, that honors and affirms the other, a praise that is inseparable from gratitude and festivity. It is less like the praise we give a dog in training and more like the praise we give our Lord. It is a kind of praise that gives blessing to both the one being praised and the one praising. Like participation in the liturgy, these special mommy moments are gifts, foretastes of heaven given to Marthas who finally leave the kitchen and sit down to drink in the little Christs in their lives.