De-Grading Our Children

Alright, be honest, how many of you parents punish your children for bringing home bad grades? It seems like almost everyone I meet has a similar philosophy of applying consequences for bad grades, the same way one would give consequences for bad behavior. Often the first time a parent sees a poor grade on their child’s report card, they are surprised, and use consequences as the first tool in teaching a child to do better in school.

I also used to practice this style of parenting. I was raised in much the same way, and believed that good grades equated effort, intelligence and success. Bad grades meant a child was lazy and probably not applying himself. When it came time to steer my own sons in the right direction, I preached straight from the choir.

Then, in my thirties, I returned to college. I’d always considered myself a smart person, and someone who did fairly well in school. All my self-assurance went down the gutter when I took a course in statistics. For the first time in my life, I was not able to breeze through my studies, and struggled to make sense of the complicated equations the professor spouted off like long-favored recipes.

I showed up for every class and study session, did all my homework, and still—I bombed the final. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I actually sobbed at my desk during the exam. I was riddled with anxiety and shame. In all my life I’d never experienced such a feeling of incompetency, and it sucked.

Having been raised to believe that smart people get good grades, I was suddenly faced with a new reality; maybe I wasn’t so smart after all.

The professor sent me an email the day after the exam. He told me that he saw me crying, and wanted me to know that I didn’t have to let grades determine my self-worth. He told me that he knew the difference between students who tried and still struggled, and students who didn’t try at all. With sheer luck, I ended up with a C-, barely passing the class. I have never been more thankful for a bad grade.

His email left me wondering if my expectations about grades were totally off-balance and unrealistic. It started me on the path of thinking about what a high GPA was really worth, and if it really mattered in the end.

My best friend said it best in a phone call, “Do you know what they call the guy who graduates medical school with the lowest GPA? Doctor.”

She was right. I wondered if I’d been sending the wrong message to my kids, and even to myself about doing well in school. There had to be a bigger picture.

What I wanted then for my sons, and still want, is for them to do well so that they can have more opportunities in the future. In my quest to provide them the clearest road possible, I inadvertently eliminated any room for individuality. My faulty thinking led me to believe that success is only possible with excellent grades, in all subjects. I didn’t take my sons’ strengths into consideration, nor did I honor their difficulties, either.

My own struggles with statistics illuminated a faulty component in my thinking: If I am smart and yet can have difficulties with certain subjects, doesn’t that mean everyone who is smart struggles with certain subjects, too? I bet Stephen Hawking, as brilliant of a theoretical-physicist and cosmologist as he is, may know next-to-nothing about, say, dermatology. Put him in a room with a skin-care expert and even he might feel dumb. (Okay, probably not, but just go with it.)

Everyone isn’t good at everything. We can’t be. We are all meant to excel in certain areas, and not in others. If being a successful person meant we excelled in all areas, there would be no room for individual greatness. If we apply this to our own children, does it make sense to expect them to excel at every subject and punish them when they struggle to meet the standards that aren’t even set up for them specifically? Further, are we applying this pressure to our children without first figuring out if they are having difficulties with learning certain subjects?

Public schools are required to teach standards set up for a mythical child, one that succeeds in math, science, reading and writing, each and every time. Ask yourselves this, would you go to college and expect to earn A’s in every major? Could you be a scientist, a literature major, a writer, and a mathematician all at once? Unless you’re Rain Man, I doubt it.

I just don’t believe it’s fair to punish children who honestly try and just don’t make the grade. Kids, like adults, aren’t great at all subjects. While I believe the foundation for learning needs to be there to help our children grow and learn the basics, we are often failing to insure that our children have all possible resources available to overcome this difficult task during their formative years. Punishment without provisions for success just doesn’t make sense.

As parents we know when our children are simply slacking off, or are genuinely struggling to make sense of a subject. What kind of lesson are we really teaching our sons and daughters when we expect them to be exceptional in every area of their life? Is it a wonder that as a culture we are so wrapped up with perfection? The message we are fed from day one is that smart people do good, and everyone else, well, they don’t. That sets up a troubling standard for all the children that land somewhere in between.

I know that some of you may firmly disagree with my take on grades and parenting. You really believe that your child needs firm direction and strict consequences when they aren’t doing their very best in school, and in life. In many ways, I agree with you. Children need clear, strong boundaries to understand just what is expected of them. But where I draw the line is the expectation that nothing but the best grades are acceptable, and punishing a child when they don’t measure up.

It’s important to acknowledge when our children are doing their very best, so we don’t send the message that their best just isn’t good enough.

At home my attitude towards grades is a lot more flexible now. If my kids end up with a D or an F, and they’ve exhausted all their options, then I am still proud of them. What I want them to know is that re-dos happen in life (they truly do—this one shot approach to living just isn’t realistic) and if they try their best but fail, I will be right beside them helping them get back on the proverbial horse to try again.

My sons also know I expect a lot from them. They have to give their best, they need to take school seriously, and they’ve got to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses. In return for their effort, I make sure they know that no score or letter of the alphabet will influence my pride or love for them.

In the end, we all want our children to be great. Don’t we? I challenge each of you to let your children know that perfection isn’t the goal, rather the process of learning. We gain so much more from the journey; the destination is only a spot to land before we go again.

What’s your take on parenting and grades? Are you strict or more laid back about your child’s report card?  Do you fall somewhere in between? I’m looking forward to reading your responses in the comment section below.