Got a Graduate? The Dos and Don'ts of Marking Transitions, Celebrating Graduations

By: Jennifer Griffin-Wiesner

Are we raising a generation of kids who need us to "ooh" and "aah" at their every next step? My mother, whose own mother never even had a birthday cake as a child, calls it "Celebration Inflation", and it ranges from party-for-hire extravaganzas, every-kid-gets-a-trophy tournaments, and graduation celebrations for everything from diapers to med school.

While I don’t really think our penchant for recognition of our kids’ successes is that bad, I am concerned that young people might be less inclined to develop intrinsic motivation if we over reward. I believe it’s more respectful of kids and more likely to help them thrive to believe in the power of their internal motivation.

On the other hand, it is important to honor and acknowledge rites of passage. All kids (and all people for that matter!) need to know they are valued and valuable, and graduation celebrations can help with that. My kids, Isaac and Nora, are completing middle and elementary school respectively this spring and that’s a big deal in their worlds. So I set out to figure how to strike a balance.

To make sure I didn’t just draw from my own opinions and experience, I conducted a "scientific" study of how parents (whom I greatly respect) deal with graduations--in particular--and transitions more generally. In other words, I put the question out on Facebook and Twitter, Googled “Graduation Celebration Ideas", and called a few friends. ;)

What I found, and it’s true to my own thinking, is that there tend to be three main priorities when a young person achieves a milestone such as a graduation:

1. Celebrate the accomplishment.

Gifts: There were some cool and unique ideas here. My neighbor Callista, for example, made tee-shirt quilts (pictured) for her boys out of their own sports, camp, music and other shirts. She has now been asked by several friends to do the same for their kids.

Activities: Have a party, go out to dinner, even take a trip somewhere.

2. Help them reflect on the experience and “say goodbye.”

Thank you gifts for teachers and a party or celebration with friends are the two most common ways this is done. A video for a teacher describing her or his impact could become a lasting treasure.

Lots of parents do an electronic slide show or photo book (for a class or individual). I also recommend writing a letter to your child telling them what about the phase they are concluding made you feel proud of and excited for them, and some of your hopes and dreams for their next phase.

3. Prepare for what’s next.

Participate in orientations and attend events at the new school if possible. My friend Martha recommends that for transition from middle school to high school, find a way to be on the campus frequently during the summer before freshman year. She suggests taking driver's education in the building (we just signed Isaac up for this) or going out for marching band or a fall sport that starts practice during the summer.

3 Things Not to Do

I also came across a few tips about things to definitely avoid:

1. Using alcohol as a rite of passage (such as having a keg and letting underage kids drink at a high school graduation party). It’s unhealthy and in most cases it’s illegal.

2. Getting so caught up in the details that you loose sight of the positive example you wish to set for your kids.

One useful way to combat the urge to get caught up in celebrations is to ask yourself: What meaningful actions can we take to make this day memorable, while teaching our kids positive values?

[Related: Tips for creating meaningful celebrations >]

[Related: Why it's important to be a positive role model >]

3. Force your child to have a graduation party or celebration because you want them to.

Keep in mind that transition times also provide great opportunities for parents to create new traditions. The ways we recognize (or fail to recognize) important milestones say a lot to our kids about what we think about who they are and who they are becoming. Click here for more ideas for making the most of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Good luck and Happy Graduation Season!



1. The Anti Drug Online

2. Image via bredgur on Flick'r.


I love the idea of writing the teen a letter commenting on his/her strengths. Also, when my daughter was a senior she wrote a thank you note to her favorite teacher. I remember doing that too when I graduated from high school. A letter, note, or as you stated, a video for a teacher would be treasured. I also agree with your “things not to do.”

For transitions for younger children, readers may want to view,
“Helping Your Child Cope with School Transitions.” The list may be found at:

It is important to acknowledge accomplishments but not every graduation needs to be celebrated. Also when we give everyone a trophy and call everyone a winner then we are doing the kids more a disservice than anything. They have no motivation to win if they will get the same things that winners do.



It seems as if there is a big push in America to take always motivation from everyone on how to advertise on Google no matter if they are hard working adults or learning children.

Great tips. My oldest son is now a Senior so I am quickly heading down that road. I must say some of the HS graduation traditions are a bit overkill. I have friends who pay $500-$1000 or more for graduation pictures. WOW! 15 different poses, 5 outfits and some of the poses for girls are more like a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition photo shoot than a HS graduation picture. Definitely, agree with the philosophy you present here. Make it memorable – ask your child what is important to him/her- and don’t go over board just because someone else is doing it. The most important aspect is creating lasting memories for your family.

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