Parents, Kids, and Grades

I have a lot to say about academic transcripts and the college admissions process.  Before I do, however, I want to talk about parents, kids, and grades.  Even the best of us can find it hard to bite our tongues when our children come home with a result that we know does not represent all that they can do.  At the same time, parental pressure about grades can cause children anxiety and even anguish.  How do we walk that fine line between giving our kids an appropriate nudge and pushing them too hard?  Let me share with you a vivid memory I have about my own mother and her approach to grades — somewhat humorous, in retrospect.

My mother and I had a grand total of two conversations about my grades — the first just after I had entered sixth grade and the second in my freshman year of college.  In that first conversation, my mother let me know that the 65’s and 70’s on my report card “disappointed” her.  Sixth grade marked a transition for me from a small, nurturing, progressive elementary school that did not give grades to a large, zoned, neighborhood intermediate school with formal report cards.  I had no idea what the numbers on this green piece of cardstock signified.  “Just try your hardest,” my mother answered when I asked what it would take for her not to feel disappointed.  She paused:  “But 90 or higher would be nice.”

I took my mother’s challenge for two reasons.  First, I hated disappointing her.  Second, I wanted to see what would happen when I tried my best.  My grades inched upward, and, by the end of the year, I had a respectable report card.  I decided to see how much further I could go with this “doing my best” strategy and continued to make strides.  Along the way, my motivation for achieving academically shifted from pleasing my mother to satisfying myself.  I developed a passion for history and languages, both of which I went on to teach later, and formed strong relationships with wonderful teachers.  My mother never offered me any material reward for academic achievement.  In her own way, she taught me that the most effective kind of motivation comes from within.

Fast forward several years later to my freshman year in college.  Suddenly, I found myself in a setting with new people, endless activities, plus the responsibilities of a work-study job.  Maintaining a straight-A average did not feel as compelling as it had in high school.  I let my mother know that I wanted to experience more at college than a study carrel and heaved a sigh of relief when she agreed I should live a little.  Imagine my surprise then, at the end of my junior year, when my mother suggested that I look into fellowships — Rhodes, Fulbright — all highly prestigious and awarded in large part based on academic achievement.  I reminded her of our conversation freshman year and explained that my transcript, while solid, would not measure up in such a competitive pool.  My mother paused again, the way she had when I was in sixth grade:  “But you’re such a good person!”  I appreciated that my mother, out of love, still wanted every door to remain open for me.  I valued even more, however, her having given me the freedom to make my own choices.

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