Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Dreaded Honor Roll

Lily, 5th from the left, with her classmates, teacher, and principal
at this morning's Honor Roll Assembly

At the beginning of the year, I had a conversation with Steve where I shared my dread over the fact that our kids’ school begins the honor roll in 1st grade. With Lily entering 1st grade, I predicted that honor roll would be an issue sometime over the year. So I purposely did not tell her about it, letting her figure it out for herself. Turns out she made the principal’s honor roll (all As) the first two quarters. Well, the kids came home from school on Friday with their third quarter report cards. Guess what? Lily made one 89! That is a B, which puts her on first honor roll instead. This is where the fun started! Lily was hysterical Friday night. It was a full meltdown, including flopping on the floor and foaming at the mouth. She was completely irrational saying, “These are the worst grades ever!” Really, dear child, your grades are fine. But there was no reassuring her that first honor roll was still a good thing. The fact of the matter was that she fell short of perfection and this was a heavy blow. This was exactly what I was dreading at the beginning of the year.

I really have mixed feelings on having honor roll for young kids. On one hand, I get that schools are trying to reward excellence and the honor roll is one way to motivate students to do good work. But in reality, in the younger grades, more kids make honor roll than do not (especially early in the year). So is it really that big of an honor? Honor roll definitely starts thinning out by 4th or 5th grade. So why not start it then?

As a parent, it is extremely difficult to have a rational conversation with a six or seven year old about what honor roll means or doesn’t mean and the implications of being on the honor roll or not. The depth at which a parent can discuss learning, achievement, motivation, and personal responsibility with their child is minimal due to their level of emotional maturity at this age. In many ways, honor roll for the little ones is a function of parental follow-up and involvement with their child’s school work. Of course, this isn’t always true 100 percent of the time, but often enough to make the point.

I also worry about such focus on numerical grades at such a young age. Remember learning new things as a child? Kids are naturally inquisitive and tend to get very excited about learning. They have a genuine love of learning. But somewhere along the way, many kids lose that love. They no longer learn for learning’s sake. They learn in ways that maximize performance on assignments. And performance is not perfectly correlated with learning. I am not sure when, where, or how this happens, but it does. Gradually any feelings of excitement about school are replaced with feelings of angst, dislike, or dread. Why must everything be focused on a bottom line grade or test score?

In many ways, Lily is a spitting image of me as a child. I don’t recall my parents putting that much pressure on me do well in school. Somehow I managed to put plenty of pressure on myself. By the time I was in middle school, I was a perfectionist. I wasn’t happy with an A. Instead, I was completely distraught that I got anything wrong. I expended so much mental energy achieving perfection that I was completely burned out by high school. My grades were good, but no longer great and I hated most of my high school experience. College became an opportunity to reinvent myself. I did well enough to graduate with honors and go on to graduate school. After many years working, I finally figured out that perfectionism is overrated and not the most effective way to be successful in life. The pace of life and work is just too fast to be perfect all the time. There is simply not enough time in the day. Over time, I have learned that excellence is a perfectly acceptable alternative to perfection. I get more done. The quality of what I do or produce is still very good. And my anxiety and stress levels are much more sustainable. But this life lesson did not come easy!

So now back to Little Miss Perfectionist. I do not wish my experience on her. Yes, I want her to be successful. I want her to do well in school because I know she is capable of it. But Tiger Mom, I am not. I really don’t mind that she missed one word on her spelling test. After all, she got 19 correct. In addition to obtaining the standard school smarts, I want her to cultivate a love of learning. I also want her to discover what she is truly good at and what she is passionate about. I want her to accept herself being less than perfect. I want her to recognize that she can't always be in control because so much of life can’t be controlled. I want her to be nice and care about other people. So at the end of the day, receiving an 89 instead of a 90 will make no difference to her quality of life now or in the future. But try telling that to a six year old who did not make principal’s honor roll!