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When I Stopped Caring About My Kids' Grades, Everything Changed for the Better

Students pick up on their parents’ feelings about school performance, and experts say it doesn’t help them in the long run.

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I still remember the day my fourth grader brought home her first C. She’d always been a sharp student with a voracious appetite for learning, and the grade went against her steady stream of As and Bs.

Of course my first reaction was to round up the troops, so to speak, and figure out what the problem was. My husband and I gathered in her room to discuss the rogue grade, and why it was there along with a sprinkle of mostly Bs, with none of the usual As in sight.

She told us she didn’t understand what the teacher was trying to teach, and that she’d liked her other teacher — one who’d retired mid-year and was gone after winter break — better. I took these statements with a grain of salt, thinking that perhaps the TV or electronics were stealing focus from school. Or maybe it was simply a learning curve, with the transition from one teacher to another.

Then parent-teacher conferences happened, and we met with her new teacher. As we hunted for chairs and huddled together around a table buried under a forest of papers, she looked at us through tired eyes and admitted that the semester had been a challenge. She’d transitioned from teaching in another state where the requirements weren’t nearly as rigorous as they were here. Her struggles, I realized, were also apparent in her students’ grades. My heart went out to her and them.

From the time my daughter was a toddler, I’d invested in books, math games, phonics puzzles and an endless reservoir of DVDs, online programs, flashcards and resources centered around learning. Good grades meant it was working, and were rewarded with bigger allowances, more sleepovers and generous Christmas gifts. With so much invested in her educational uplift, I’d come to view her grades as a reflection of my own success, and this C was screaming that I’d failed.

But that moment in the classroom was pivotal for me. I began questioning just how wise I’d been to place so much emphasis on those letters peeking out from report cards all these years. What did they reflect that we, as parents, never even consider? And perhaps the bigger question: how involved should (or shouldn’t) parents be with pushing the narrative on good grades?

Parents can affect their kids’ grades — and not always for the better.

According to Brent Sweitzer, a private practice professional counselor, parental involvement plays a significant role with grades. “Children pick up on parents' anxiety about school performance and can internalize it,” he says. “On the other hand, parents' lack of involvement can deprive children — particularly those diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia or other learning differences — from developing healthy habits that'll serve them later in life.”

The solution, then, is learning how to balance how much you get involved, and when. “One of the most important learnings for children,” says Sweitzer, “is for them to be able to trust themselves, but that can only happen when we trust them.” A way to establish that trust, he believes, is by letting children be responsible for their own work based on what’s developmentally appropriate. In addition, we need to give them room to learn through mistakes — including a few bombed tests and assignments — and offer lots of chances for them to improve on those mistakes.

Sweitzer suggests the following approach:

  • Lead with listening. Ask kids how they feel about their grades and where they think they need help. “This helps you know more about their strengths and weaknesses in school,” says Sweitzer, “But it's also a way to express how much you care for them.” Had I asked questions earlier on about my daughter’s struggles with the new teacher, I would have been less likely to feel so taken aback by that C.
  • Tune into your anxiety about your kids’ school performance. “Sometimes parents overstep because they over-identify with their child's performance,” Sweitzer says. “It can be helpful to reflect on the messages you got from your own parents about school and how you felt about them. Unconsciously, you may be repeating what was done to you.”
  • Create a healthy, positive environment where you hold realistic expectations of your kids. “Children tend to thrive when they feel emotionally safe and feel the adults in their lives actually believe in them,” Sweitzer says. Criticizing them for their grades does just the opposite.

    That also doesn’t mean you go completely off the grid and stand back as you watch your children fail. If kids are struggling, Sweitzer believes parents should first try to understand why. For instance, adults can struggle at work for many reasons: inadequate support or training, emotional or relationship struggles, being in the wrong job and so on. A good boss will have faith in your capabilities, dig deeper to grow curious about your struggles, listen with an attentive ear and offer resources to help. Children need the same. “If we really take the time to listen,” Sweitzer says, “We can learn a lot about how to help our kids. But we need to accept the fact that we may not always like what we hear, because it could mean self-examination on our parts and making changes ourselves.”

    Another reason parents should check their own emphasis on grades? They might not be all that helpful a metric in the long run. According to 16 studies of grading reliability summarized by Thomas Guskey, professor emeritus in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, many factors beyond a student’s individual performance can influence grades, including: teacher severity or leniency, varying evaluation criteria and teacher error. But when we’re desperate to measure our children’s competencies using the alphabets on their assignments, we often fail to account for influencers like these and many others that have no bearing or reflection of children’s true abilities or skills.

    Instead of grades, families can focus on other types of intelligence.

    Most parents drink from the same well when it comes to report cards: Grades mean everything. They determine everything from screen-time privileges to allowance allocations. With this concerted focus on academic achievement, are we missing the mark elsewhere? Turns out we might be.

    According to a study conducted by independent researcher Dr. A Chitra, researchers conclude that cognitive intelligence alone is not enough to make progress in everyday life. In fact, Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner proposes a theory of multiple intelligences beyond academia, such as spatial and interpersonal intelligence. Experts like Sweitzer encourage parents to take a page from Gardner’s studies and focus on instilling these other types of smarts that may be going ignored amidst a focus on academic achievement.

    If you find yourself in a squabble with a colleague, for example, your aptitude for multiplying double digits in your head or spelling a complicated word at speed likely aren’t going to do much in the way of extricating you from the situation. But emotional intelligence will.

    The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning (SEL) as the process through which people understand and manage emotions, feel and express empathy for others, attain positive goals, maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

    “Though hard to quantify,” says Sweitzer, “Emotional Intelligence is vital for thriving. We give lots of attention and resources to formal schooling, but often don't give the same attention to our children's inner lives and their capacity to form and maintain healthy relationships. But research shows that the quality of our relationships — not our income levels, educational background or the amount of money we make — is key to a satisfying life, particularly in industrialized nations.”

    According to Dr. Marc Brackett of Yale University, the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, early childhood, a critical period for brain growth and language development, is the perfect time to instill emotional intelligence in kids. Dr. Brackett offers age-appropriate tips, such as acknowledging and naming children’s feelings, helping them identify what calm feels like in their bodies and using sensory tools like squishy balls or glitter jars.

    "Research shows that the quality of our relationships — not our income levels, educational background or the amount of money we make — is key to a satisfying life."

    Another great leverage, he says, are books. “When reading storybooks, talk about how the characters might be feeling,” he explains. “Discuss why they are feeling that way and whether they would want to continue to feel that way — and if not, what they could do to change the feeling.”

    For kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, he suggests expressing your emotions and giving them a name so your child can learn to do the same. “Knowing what we’re feeling and being able to identify it helps us understand ourselves better and make better decisions,” he says.

    Emotional intelligence also includes how to behave online, both in terms of safety and being a good person. This could encompass things like teaching kids how to be cautious and responsible on the web, avoid risky situations and be cognizant of their surroundings in a digital world — another type of smarts that parents can help instill in their children.

    Social researcher Johnathan McKee in his book Parenting Generation Screen: Guiding Your Kids to Be Wise in a Digital World, says, “It’s not that screens are bad, but they’ve inarguably exposed kids to greater risks to their physical safety and mental health.”

    But no matter how tempting it may be to ban screen time altogether considering these risks, that isn’t the best or most practical solution. Instead, McKee encourages parents to become “screenwise” by educating children about healthy ways to be online. This includes teaching them what predatory or bullying behaviors look like, what to share on social media, how to be a good digital citizen and what hours of the day it’s okay to be online. (Homework and sleep come first.) It’s also wise to sit down with your kids and agree on a family policy that covers the use of parental controls, the number of hours for screen time and how the rules are enforced once they’re set.

    Another important area of focus are financial skills. Most students spend years learning how to solve increasingly challenging math equations in school (often ones that, though we tell them the opposite, they’ll never use again). And although they also learn the basics of identifying dollars and cents as young as kindergarten, these foundational skills don’t account for much in real life.

    The Handbook of Consumer Finance Research states that many kids show poor ability to make age-appropriate financial decisions in their best interests. And those who come from families with greater financial resources are usually more financially literate than those from families that are less well-off, which exacerbates the inequality among these groups.

    Studies find kids show poor ability to make age-appropriate financial decisions in their best interests.

    Experts Sharon M. Danes, Catherine Huddleston-Casas, and Laurie Boyce conducted a study that observed the impact of financial planning curriculum in high schools to determine the financial knowledge, behavior and efficiency of over 4,000 teens across the nation. The study found that three months after completing the curriculum, 50% had gained knowledge and 40% realized confidence in money management.

    To give kids a leg-up in the world once they exit the classroom environment and enter the life of bills and expenditures, parents can teach children how to budget money, live within their means, save and keep track of expenses. A credit card might be an option for young adults, and a bank account to keep track of funds may be a good place to deposit allowance, teaching kids how to manage money digitally. Collectively, these skills can translate to a healthier, more stable financial outlook for these future adults.

    Although there are many types of intelligence that can make children more well-rounded, successful individuals, don’t view these potentially missed areas of focus as a reason to discount tutoring sessions or chess club enrollments. Instead, think of them as supplemental avenues to help your child gain a more comprehensive understanding of the world around them.

    In the end, that C I’d fretted and lost sleep over turned into a B, and then an A as the teacher got a better hang of the county’s criteria and expectations — and my daughter learned to acclimate to a new instructor. Meanwhile, I remained focused on inculcating other smarts in my daughter, appreciating the heightened confidence she gained in herself, and how that confidence reflected in other areas of her life, including school.

    Still, several years later, maintaining a de-emphasis on grades doesn’t always come easily to me. I have to remind myself that it’s only when I allow opportunities for my kids to stumble that they’ll have a chance to flex their muscles and lift themselves up — stronger, more resilient every time. Because I know I won’t be here forever. Gifting them with independence and perseverance is my legacy to them — one I hope they’ll carry to their benefit throughout their lives.

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