How can good grades be bad?

When it comes to grades, sometimes it’s harder to parent a child who consistently gets good grades than a child who under-achieves. Let’s hop into the way-back machine so I can explain using my own experience as a mediocre student as an example.

I regularly brought home disappointing grades. My mother would say things like, “You’re not working hard enough,” or, “Perhaps you should spend less time watching television and more time studying.” My mother knew the basic message she had to deliver to me; work harder, or else.

My older sister, on the other hand, was an earnest, hard-working student. And the oldest, I think we can agree, is traditionally burdened with higher expectations than the middle child (me). On the oh-so-rare occasion that she brought home a disappointing grade she would be devastated, and my mom would soothe her and say, “Oh honey, it’s only a C. It doesn’t matter.”

My own daughter, my only daughter, is cursed with the high performance expectations of the oldest child, exacerbated by the unwanted attention that an only gets. Much to her dismay, we expect her to get good grades. On the rare occasion that she brings home a disappointing grade, we are, well, disappointed. Had I not been trotting along behind my older sister, sprinkling bad grades behind her, my mother might not have had the perspective to say to her first-born, “There, there. It doesn’t matter.”

My child is plagued by one other difference; she doesn’t appear to work terribly hard to get her good grades. I say “appear,” because on this point our realities differ. How do you tell a child that gets excellent grades that they should work harder?

A recent New Yorker had a piece about the value, or lack thereof, of homework. They claimed that studies show that doing homework, or not, doesn’t have much of an impact on grades. If that’s true, then maybe my daughter doesn’t need to work harder. But while homework may sometimes include the directive to study, studying should not be restricted to homework assignments.

The fact that we expect our daughter to perform well in school doesn’t have any impact on how we feel when she does. But like the Gary Larson cartoon where the dog only hears “Blah, blah, blah, Ginger,” all our daughter hears is criticism. When report cards came out for the first time this school year, my husband and I went to great lengths to let our daughter know how proud we were. We’re learning, slowly but surely, that even if expectations align with reality, we should take nothing for granted. Even so, I doubt my daughter will ever hear me say, “It’s only a C. It doesn’t matter,” not, anyway, until I hear it from my mom.


11 responses to “How can good grades be bad?

  1. Your post brings up many conflicting thoughts… As a student, I did quite well on most things. It was the main source of my self esteem. But in 9th grade I had a meltdown in math, for various reasons and got a D+, the lowest grade of my life. (I was two years ahead in math and was promoted and put into a class with 11th grade jerky boys for pre-calculus when I was actually ill prepared by a year of tutoring and unstructured work.)

    Most importantly, nobody bothered to consider the fact that I hated the subject! I should have stayed with my peers–maybe I would have done better (with your daughter’s husband in my classes, for example!). Or maybe I would have dropped math asap anyway.

    But one thing I didn’t learn very well through my general lack of experience with it and this particular unprecedented traumatic fall from grace was how to fail. Failing is a good experience. It teaches fortitude, persistence, resilience, and how to make good choices. I have students at community college who dream of careers that are not within their grasp because they in no way reflect their skill set or educational background. Sadly, they fail at preparatory classes and don’t either overcome their weaknesses or switch to something that reflects their strengths.

    It is good to try many things at school, but ultimately best to figure out what you’re good at and do more of that. When you’re good at something and care about it, if you really push yourself, you will fail at what you love sometimes. Much of my writing involves generating tons of useless material that doesn’t work or can’t be used in a final piece–but it’s this process that enables me to create something better. And then there’s my performances where my friends observe, “Wow, that was better than last time!”

    So…what am I saying? I guess that it’s good for us to be challenged, truly challenged, when young. If all the schoolwork comes too easy, we might not be able to deal with future challenges in whatever arena–perhaps not academic but personal, at the workplace, in family life…

    As for doing homework… I don’t get the idea that it doesn’t affect grades. Good homework teaches. Students who don’t complete their homework fail. They don’t learn how to work hard, to take initiative, to organize their time, to prioritize, to–yes, I’m saying it–postpone gratification. These are all good survival skills for either a stupid job that pays your bills so you can have fun in your free time or a dream job that requires these skills to work with others and truly achieve something great.

    By the way, I’ve heard that the first grade someone gets in a class is a great predictor of the grade they will have at the end of the term. I think this is because it’s a reflection of how much effort (and sometimes background knowledge) they put into the work.

    Now I’m going to submit this. If I really wanted it to be better, I would let it sit and do two more drafts on two consecutive days. But I have learned how to cut my losses, prioritize, extemporize…

  2. May I borrow your title and write something called “How Can Bad Grades Be Good?” when my son manages to bring home all D’s (we pray) this term?

  3. I had to work hard for my grades, and I had friends who did better with much less effort. But I pushed myself in the subject I liked and gave up too easily in the subjects I didn’t like. In college, I took every class much more seriously. I did very well, but I knew I had to work harder in some of my classes because I didn’t set up the foundation of knowledge years earlier.

    I try to pass this information on to my children. Advanced degrees are more important than ever. With lower grades, opportunities shrink. My daughter is too hard on myself while my son didn’t care enough (we didn’t have the first born/second born syndrome. It was the opposite). But both of them care so much now, I do find myself wanting to get them to ease up on themselves.

    Really, I care more about effort than grades. Did the HW get done? Did you study? If you didn’t understand it, did you seek extra help? If the answer is yes to all, I give sympathy. If it’s not, then I let them know I’m unhappy.

  4. Every parent likes to see their child do well in class but a more important issue may be the quality of the class itself. A poor grade in a challenging class may be more meaningful than a good grade in a standard section. And sometimes courage ,passion, cheerfulness, compassion, imagination, integrity, persistence and resilience are not graded but evidence of those qualities are important in one’s vita – and Curriculum Vitae.

  5. This whole discussion reminds me of this NPR piece I heard recently and plan on sharing with my Community College students.

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