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Why the Hell Are Toddlers “Graduating” & Can We Make it Stop?

Graduation ceremonies for toddlers are still a relatively new thing here in the U.K. — they arrived on the scene seemingly out of nowhere and quickly established themselves as a bonafide small-person milestone. But honest to god: why?

I know these ceremonies are a fairly longstanding tradition in the U.S., with various versions of “graduation” depending on where you live and the type of school your kid goes to. Basically, by the time a child finishes high school, they might be on their fifth graduation ceremony.

When I first saw a toddler graduation picture on Facebook, I thought it was dress-up day at nursery. (The tot wore a gown and mortarboard and was clutching — sucking? — a scroll.) But no. It was a legitimate graduation ceremony, for three-year-olds. Rows of proud parents, grandparents and other invited guests looked on with teary eyes, smartphone cameras at the ready.

At the risk of being called a killjoy (I’ll take one for the team), can we please postpone the first “graduation” ceremony at least until elementary school, when kids actually have some level of understanding of what all the fuss is about? I know it’s unlikely to happen. From baby “sprinkles” to divorce parties, we as a society are obsessed with making things into milestones and celebrating — and there’s no going back.

“It’s so important to celebrate a toddler’s graduation because they’re moments you will never get back,” lifestyle blogger Ciara Green tells SheKnows. “There will be a day when children no longer want their parents around them for celebrations. Celebrate and cherish all of the moments, big or small. Life is short so make the celebrations big!”

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Image: Shutterstock / Volodymyr Tverdokhlib. Shutterstock / Volodymyr Tverdokhlib.

I get where Green is coming from. But I simply can’t share her enthusiasm for toddler graduation. It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate all my kids’ milestones — I absolutely do. But I think we can celebrate them privately, on our own terms, without forced formality and all the pressure that invariably goes along with it. Because with graduation comes parties and gifts — and that appears to be the case whether you still pee your pants or not.

It’s this aspect of toddler graduations that mom of five Amy Carney of Parent on Purpose, can’t get on board with. “As parents, we must be mindful of not over-celebrating every milestone our kids reach throughout childhood,” she tells SheKnows. “If we begin throwing extravagant parties and buying preschool graduation gifts for our toddlers, what in the world will our sons and daughters grow up to expect when they are teenagers graduating from high school?”

Preschool graduation ceremonies aren’t solely to blame for what Carney describes as “the entitlement mentality of today’s youth,” but do they encourage our kids to expect every celebration to be bigger and better than the one that came before (um, hi, awful over-the-top “promposals”)? If that’s the case, it’s hardly their fault. We can’t blame kids for wanting the red carpet treatment by the time they get to their third or fourth graduation if they were made to feel like celebrities at their first.

Another crap thing about toddler graduation ceremonies is that they take place, naturally, during preschool hours. Also known as working hours, for many parents. So it’s mom guilt if you don’t go, work stress if you do. “You kind of have to go, because you don’t want your kid to be the only one without a parent there, even if you feel like it’s a little much to have a graduation ceremony for three-year-olds,” writer Kaitlin Madden, whose own three-year-old is set to “graduate” from his class this month, tells SheKnows. Madden says she’s looking forward to her son’s ceremony. “It sounds adorable, and this is the first time I’ll be going to one,” she says. “But if you ask me again in 21 years when my youngest is graduating college I might have a different opinion — by that time I’ll have been to dozens of them.”

I wonder if high school and college graduations are less special for kids who’ve been there, done that (and worn the mortarboard) in preschool, kindergarten, elementary school and middle school. Madden doesn’t think so. “Each one is its own achievement,” she says. “I don’t remember being at my own college graduation and feeling like it wasn’t special because I already had a graduation in high school, or in 5th grade.”

My youngest child is five months old, so we will be blissfully free of graduation ceremonies for at least another few years. By that time, I might have come to terms with the idea of seeing a mortarboard on her tiny head and a soggy scroll in her tiny fist. And of course I’ll be there to celebrate with her, because who needs more mom guilt? But I’ll be holding off on the party — and the gifts — until she’s old enough to appreciate them, not expect them.

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