A couple weeks ago, I received two half-page flyers in my daughters’ backpacks informing me that each would be receiving an award for the first nine weeks’ grading period and listing the dates and times that I, the parent, should be there to witness them receive said awards. Because neither had missed a day of school so far, I knew they would be receiving attendance certificates. And because my eldest is a straight-A student, I knew she would be recognized with an honor roll certificate.
On the day of the awards presentation, we parents gathered in the auditorium, chitchatted with each other, and waved at our beaming kids. The principal made a few announcements, warning parents that this was the only nine-week period in which perfect attendance awards would be given to kids who had any tardies. He also emphasized that not every child would be receiving an award—that the point of the ceremony was to recognize specific achievements and be happy for the kids who met said achievements. I couldn’t help but think that the unusually lengthy disclaimer was a result of having been chastised by angry parents in ceremonies past.
After the ceremony, I couldn’t help but notice the look of sadness and disappointment in the faces of the kids who didn’t get an award or whose parents weren’t able to be there. I even saw some third graders openly weeping and being comforted by their teacher. A part of me couldn’t help but think if it was really necessary to go through this whole show four times a year, especially if it meant some kids might never get to stand in front and accept an award in front of their peers.
Which leads me to my confessions:
- I’m not completely comfortable with the idea of award ceremonies every nine weeks. I get the big end-of-year show, but I’m conflicted about overdoing it.
- Despite having a child who is always at the top of her class, I worry immensely about overemphasizing the importance of grades.
- Part of the reason I am so obsessed with getting my kids to school every day is to make sure that they will get some sort of award and get to stand and smile and feel proud during the ceremony.
Before I go into detail explaining my confessions, I must put them in context with my own story. I was much like my eldest daughter: consumed with getting straight A’s and convinced that having the best marks meant I was the best student and could get into the best college, and therefore have the best job. We live in a society that says the better your grades are, the better your life will be. And who wouldn’t want that? I looked forward to every elementary awards ceremony, secure in the knowledge that I would always get to stand in front of an applauding crowd as I held my honor roll certificate and beamed with pride.
It was addictive.
Needless to say, as my quest for the best grades continued well past elementary school, I made sure that I took classes that would boost my GPA—honors/AP courses in high school added extra 10 points to your final average—and avoided those in which I might be dinged by a below 99 mark. I attended Alamo Heights High School, where to be in the top 5% you HAD to have a GPA of 99 or above, and to secure a spot in the coveted top 10 you had to have a GPA of over 100. As a junior I was ranked 6th, until I made the “terrible mistake” of taking a computer programming class I did not understand. I made my first true B, thereby slipping to number 14 of 282 by the time I walked across the stage in the spring of 1997. Even though my parents were incredibly encouraging and supportive, I viewed my fall from the top ten as a disaster.
Looking back on this experience as an adult, I can’t help but chuckle at the ridiculousness of it all. So focused on securing top marks and padding my resume to get into the college of my choice, I lost sight of taking risks that might have made me a more resilient adult. I was so ill prepared for failure that my first and only C grade—in college basic drawing, of all things—left me so rattled I decided that being an art major wasn’t for me after all, and I switched to the relatively safe and easy major of psychology, which was one of the least rigorous tracks I could have chosen. I still had to work hard (I was, in fact, surrounded by overachievers at Yale University), but I knew I could still make an A if I did my work religiously and followed the rules I’d been conditioned to follow.
Back to the present.
As a parent, I want the best for my children. To me, that means encouraging them to do their best every day, and to show up for school prepared and on time every day. My eldest, now a third grader, has already felt the pride and approval that comes from being a teacher’s pet, from working diligently to complete her assignments and earn the coveted “A.” And who am I to discourage her? Shouldn’t I be thrilled? The answer is that yes, in many way I am. She is on the right track, not only grade-wise but also in how she treats others, how she leads by example, and how she shows such compassion for others.
Nevertheless, I am all too aware that I must make a concerted effort to reward the effort most of all and to encourage her to take risks—to remind her that being a well-rounded, compassionate, loving human is far more important than making straight A’s. While I’ll always clap with enthusiasm and proudly post pics of my baby holding her honor roll award, I’ll also be mindful to have meaningful conversations about what it means to be a good human being and to go outside her comfort zone—even if that means possible failure.
My first-grade daughter is just as bright as her older sister, but she isn’t intrinsically motivated by grades. Perhaps she has already come to the conclusion that her big sis is the star student so there’s no sense trying to measure up to her academically. Or maybe she is so wise beyond her years that she knows that as long as she is a kind person and works hard, she will be OK no matter what the report card says. I often look at her and think, This kid has it made. She is so confident in herself and genuinely happy. She lets bad news roll off her shoulders and embraces the good and the fun in everything. We could all learn a thing or two from her about what’s really important in life.