My parents never went to parent/teacher conferences. I always felt a little silly when teachers were handing me my portfolio of work the day after conferences and telling me, “Um, show this to your mom, I guess.” Finally, around the fifth grade I asked my mom about it. When I asked my mom why they never went, she said, “Why would we go? So we could sit around and hear how great you are? We already know you’re doing fine. That would just be embarrassing.” This would certainly not be an acceptable answer in today’s parenting climate. Unless you are a Mennonite, in which case I’m guessing that’s still how they answer. We do not handle praise well.
Every year I would bring home the “my child is an honor student” bumper sticker and every year it would go straight in the trash. I brought home good report cards and sometimes they’d take me out for a donut. My sister (who is one of THE smartest people I know) didn’t apply herself much in high school and it never bothered my parents. They figured that was her decision and the consequences were hers, too. I lettered in music and academics, but they felt like the jackets were too pricey, so my letters got tacked onto the bulletin board in my room. Outside of elementary school, I never remember them sitting down to do homework with me or even reminding me to do my homework (I hope this goes without saying, but while my kids are young, I will be very involved in helping them establish good routines for homework and providing lots of academic accountability). It was my job and they assumed I’d get it done. I knew they wanted me to do well in school, but I also knew it was my responsibility. If I wanted college scholarships, I had to put in the effort now to save myself the financial headaches later because my parents absolutely weren’t taking out loans to pay for college.
I try to remember these things as I become the parent of a school-aged child. It is amazing to me how quickly I have started to see his successes as reflective of me. If he doesn’t do well, what does that say about my parenting? If he gets into the gifted program, doesn’t that mean I’ve done my job right? I have to tell myself to relax about these things and remember that if we wouldn’t have adopted him from that West African orphanage, my son would likely be doing math with sticks in the dirt, if he was able to go to school at all. He has a lot of opportunities before him and I’m proud of how he’s developing character along with intellect. Much about his potential is still uncertain. Adoption is interesting that way—I don’t know what he’s capable of or what he will be passionate about. So I just get to sit back and heave a sigh of relief at any indication that he is progressing normally. In some ways this has lowered my expectations and made it easier for me to parent the way my parents did—with an open hand.
Should my son have great successes in life, I want to encourage him. I want him to know I’m proud of him. But I want him to know most fully that what I am proud about is his character. An easy “A” is not as rewarding as a hard fought “B”. I will go to parent teacher conferences to know how my kids are doing and to offer my support to their teachers, but more than hearing that my kids are excelling, I want to hear that they’re working hard. If they should earn that coveted “honor roll” bumper sticker, I don’t think I’ll be putting it on the car. (But if they made one of those that said, “My kid is potty-trained” there have been a couple years here where I would have been pretty proud for that.) I don’t want them to feel like MY identity is wrapped up in their academic success. Maybe I’ll save them up and they can put them on their own cars someday.
I had a lot of good teachers over my years in public school, but there is one teachable moment I will never forget. I was a senior in high school and had just gotten back a paper in my AP Literature and Composition class. The grade wasn’t what I had hoped. I had noticed that my last few papers had been getting lower grades, but when I snuck a peek at a couple classmates, I didn’t notice them experiencing the same phenomenon. I started to feel pretty convinced that there was unfairness going on, especially since I was pretty convinced my writing was better than a couple of my classmates who were getting better grades. I got bold enough about it, that I went in to talk to my teacher after school one day. I brought her my paper and told her the grade on it didn’t seem to make sense. I had met the objectives, didn’t have errors, etc. Why was this a “B” quality paper when other students were getting “A”s. She said to me, “Maralee, you’re right. If another student had turned in this paper, they would have gotten a better grade. But this is YOUR paper and you can do a better job. This is not your best work and I’m not going to give you a grade that encourages you to quit trying. You have potential, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you put in the work.” I’ve never worked so hard for a teacher in my life. It was a huge shift in perspective. I used to write what I knew was the minimum to get the grade I wanted. After this conversation I started writing to truly express myself, to put the best product out I could. I wasn’t encouraged by false praise, but by real challenges. A teacher who wouldn’t let me get by. (She is also the teacher who told me, “You write like a train—it takes you forever to get going, then you’re really on a roll and you don’t know how to stop.” That woman haunts me every. day.) I think part of the reason I have chosen writing as a way to release my thoughts now is because she made me feel like I had a gift.
I want my kids to have teachers that challenge them. I want to be a parent that challenges them, too. I want to praise when it means something and for each of my kids that will be different. I can already see their different gifting and aptitudes and what comes easy for one may be a struggle for another. I want to be encouraging them not towards a uniform standard, but towards their own potential. I want to be encouraging their work ethic. And ultimately, I want to back off. I want the rewards and consequences to be theirs and not put my identity in what I can’t (or shouldn’t!) control.