For as long as I can remember, my daughter’s teachers have made a point of telling me my kid is really, really smart.
I know. That’s what teachers are supposed to say in elementary school. Your kid may eat paste and argue with his shoes during quiet time, but his teachers will still fervently claim that he’s gifted. I understand that.
But I’m pretty sure Riley’s teachers were being sincere. They’ve always praised her up and down, using phrases ranging from “uniquely intelligent,” to “smart and precocious.” Our favorite teacher, our beloved Ms. Sullivan from 4th grade, wrote on that year’s progress report: “Riley is extraordinarily smart and curious. With the right guidance, she could use her intellectual abilities to achieve world domination.”
I’ve always thought my kid has the potential to be the next Lex Luthor. The thought pleases me.
Yesterday, Riley brought home her mid-term 6th grade report card. She didn’t actually show it to me herself. I received an email from her school, and had to ask to see it. When I did, she shrugged, plucked it out of her backpack, and handed it over.
Imagine my surprise when I saw that her grades were not so much the marks of a genius, evil or otherwise.
They weren’t bad. They were fine. If you think a B in Math is fine. If you think a B in Social Studies is fine. If you think a B in English, of all subjects, is fine.
Which I do not.
I can live with the Math and Social Studies grades. But English? English has always been our area. This kid and I have been reading together since she was a zygote. She’s been writing stories of her own since preschool. I myself am an English teacher. My DNA is her DNA, right? I mean, I have a reputation to uphold.
I knew we needed to have a Dad-Daughter convo about this. I just wasn’t sure how to do it right.
When I was a kid, my parents exerted no small amount of pressure on me when it came to my own grades, and all it did was make me want to drop out of school and become a drummer. (Plan A involved joining Huey Lewis and the News on tour.) I earned A’s in classes that interested me — which included English — but my grades in other areas (History, Math, most of the sciences)… not so much. And no amount of pressure or threats from my parents about being unable to get into college was going to work. On the contrary, such pressure would just make me stonewall them and work less.
I decided to play it casual.
“So,” I ventured during dinner last night, “I see we got a B in Language Arts.”
Riley nodded, smiled, perfectly nonplussed.
“You know,” I continued, “this is a subject you’ve always been really good at. I’m thinking an A probably wouldn’t be too hard to get. What do you think?”
“I guess,” she shrugged.
I decided to push. Just a little. “Why do you think you got a B instead of an A? Was there a project that was extra difficult?”
“No,” she said vaguely. “It’s pretty easy.”
“Do you slow down and spend enough time on assignments? That’s always been an issue, right? When we rush through stuff, we tend to make mistakes. I know that happens to me sometimes.”
She started getting frustrated, which is usually followed by Conversation Shutdown. “I don’t get it,” she huffed, “B’s are good grades. Shouldn’t you be proud of me?”
HELL no, I thought. B is the new C, don’t you know that? B’s are for losers! But I said:
“B’s are nothing to sneeze at, for sure. But I wouldn’t call them ‘good’ grades, exactly. Especially in subjects where you could be getting A’s.” In that moment, I was conveniently forgetting all the B’s I myself received in school. Not to mention… er, a few sub-B’s.
“It’s just that I don’t think of you as a B-level thinker,” I added. “You know? You’re definitely A material. Especially when it comes to reading and writing. Maybe we just need to work a little harder. Shouldn’t be too tough. Let’s start making more time after school to go over your English homework. Deal?”
She didn’t really know what to say to that, and our conversation sort of sputtered from there. I got the Frown, the Brow Furrow, the Exasperated Sigh. Begrudging agreement that we’d start devoting more time to what I’ve always thought was her favorite subject.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen from here. Frankly, I find myself feeling torn. On the one hand, grades are important. I know they are. And I do believe that sometimes, we need to put the heat on with our kids to get them motivated. On the other hand, I always swore I’d never resort to certain tactics to provoke incentive: paying my daughter for good grades, threatening to revoke privileges if grades aren’t high enough, etc. I really don’t want to employ such measures.
I do know that by teaching her discipline now, I’ll be helping her prepare for high school, where grades are more important and can make all the difference come college application time. I also know that ultimately, the best way to get good grades is to care about getting good grades.
But you just can’t force a kid to care, regardless of how smart she is.