Saturday, April 9, 2016

Own Your Success

When my brother started college at Cal Berkeley six years ago, my dad flew out to help him settle into his dorm and attend freshman orientation. After an introduction, the parents were separated from their now-adult children.
"How many of you are interested in learning how you can track your children's grades?" the parent tour guide asked.
Hands went up. These parents had diligently tracked their kids' test scores, communicated with teachers, and enrolled their students in SAT prep classes for years. Yes, all that had been "so you can get into college", but why stop there? They waited for the tour guide to impart his wisdom.
"Well...too bad! Your kids are adults! You have no legal right! Too bad, too bad, tooooo bad!"
My dad told me this story the week before I left for school as a de-stresser. I shared it on a university humor Facebook page after someone posted a joke about colleges holding parent teacher conferences. I got over a hundred likes, a couple of laughing comments, and one retort from a middle aged woman. She said she still expected her children to feed her report cards.
I blew it off as an isolated incident-until I read further down the thread.
First, I'm surprised how many non-college people follow college humor accounts. It stands to reason that if you do that, you'd be the type of person who likes college students, or at least enjoys jokes about them. Not an ageist. If you hate the entire species, don't try to immerse yourself in our culture. Just sayin'.
Second, a lot of parents argued that they had a right to know how their offspring were performing since they were paying for their education. Nope, wrong, you're a control freak. Google FERPA. Sometimes money just isn't power. I want to track down that ex-tour guide and take a picture of him....oh, wait. I can do that myself.

Parenting isn't a business deal. We might take care of you in your old age because we like you, but children aren't investments. We're people with our own goals, opportunities, and stresses. You need to respect that, both before and after we come of age, or we're never going to be independent.
All through middle school and high school, I knew kids whose parents paid them for grades.
I feel like that's a bad strategy. It's not analogous to the workplace-you can do an exceptional job and still get paid the same as your slacker coworkers. Will you give your all even if your boss doesn't give you a bonus? If it's not preparing you for anything, what is it supposed to do in the mean time? Motivate you to succeed? Getting a good grade should be its own reward. If you're getting good grades for your parents, you'll never own your own success.
If your kid is not on the verge of failing, I don't think non-monetary privileges should hinge on grades either. I joined the school newspaper in seventh grade. Our adviser broke us into sections and told us to exchange email addresses. To my horror, all the other girls in my group had their own email. I was the only one still using my parents' address for everything. I went home and told my parents I needed an email address for school projects.
"You can have it if you get an A in every class."
So I tried my hardest in every class. It wasn't too rough. This was my first quarter of seventh grade. I only had homework two or three times a week. My hardest subject was algebra, but even then I had some easy assignments. Our first homework was a little green paper with addition and subtraction problems any eight year old could solve with ease. It was assigned to us purely to demonstrate the differences between arithmetic and algebraic thinking. I turned it in. The grade never showed up online, but I was new to the grade tracking system and assumed I didn't understand how to read it. In the last week of the quarter, I still had an A- in algebra. I told my teacher I'd turned it in but he said it had never crossed his desk. My grade would remain where it was.
I excused myself to the bathroom and broke down crying. That was the first time, but certainly not the last, that I would cry over my grades. But I really wasn't shedding tears over math at all. I knew that I was capable of solving second grade sums. It wasn't about my personal success either-I knew I could survive with an A- in seventh grade algebra. But I was devastated that I couldn't prove myself to my teacher and my parents. I wouldn't get an email address. Everybody else had them, and lots of my friends were getting cell phones and social media too, but I'd still have to channel all my newspaper work through my parents' email.
My grade averaged into an A in the end and I got my email address. Was this a learning experience? You bet. When I decided I wanted a blog a year later, I created the site you're looking at now without asking my parents. But did it affect my future grades? No. I had a 4.0 for that first semester of seventh grade but didn't get it back until my senior year. I continued to get good grades, though. My school sent me an honor roll certificate every quarter and my parents used the backs for scratch paper. Sophomore year, I went over to my friend Sam's house and saw her one and only middle school honor roll certificate framed above her bed. I felt sick, like my own success had been wasted on me. Sam had worked her butt off for a spot on the honor roll. It was a moment to preserve for eternity. All my success piled up was just scratch paper in the computer drawer. Worthless, to both me and my parents, even though they'd pushed me to success in the first place.
In the summer after eighth grade, I told my mom I wanted to get into BYU, the pickiest school in the state of Utah. By tenth grade I regretted letting that slip. "Take this summer ACT prep class the week your favorite cousins are in town so you can get into BYU." "Do extra credit even though you have 103% in this class. It might be the one score that makes or breaks you for BYU." "I called the BYU admissions office and they said you're right on the bubble."
It wasn't long before the school's name made me cringe. BYU had been my dream, but she hijacked it. I reclaimed it in the end. I made her stop tracking my grades and I looked into other schools. End result? I'm writing this post in the BYU library. I'm happy here. The dream is mine again.
Parent-based motivation bothers me in the same way age-based morality bothers me. If you tell a kid that drinking, drugs, porn, and premarital sex are wrong because they're a minor-or not wrong at all, just not permitted under your roof-they'll feel free to do them when they grow up and move out. Maybe. More likely they'll do those things under a friend's roof. If you raise a kid to have a moral opposition to those things, they'll continue living your standards once they're on their own.
Don't you want your kid to have a good life once they're no longer living under your roof? Don't you want your kid to move out from under your roof? Then teach them independence, not parental dependence. If you have the means to support or supplement your kid's university tuition, do it because you love them. Don't make that money a shackle.
We spent twelve years trying to get into college. Now we're here, let us enjoy our happily ever after. We'll have new dragons to slay soon enough. If you're not scholarship dependent or grad school bound, then C's get degrees. Learn stuff. Pass classes. Don't get kicked off the football team. You're all set. Yeah, you should aspire to more than C's, but do it to please yourself, not anyone else. The top things employers care for you to do with college are
1. Get in
2. Get out, diploma in hand
If you are scholarship dependent or grad school bound, you have external motivation to get good grades. Parents shouldn't have to push you.
I'm grateful to my parents for working hard and helping me get through school. I'm glad I don't have to sell plasma to pay dorm rent like lots of my friends. But I don't think the average parent is some kind of superhero for helping the poorest person in their immediate family through the most expensive time of their life. You're a jerk if you can and don't. My friend Maya would love to go to college and achieve her dream of being a high school choir teacher. But the same parents who pay her sister's college tuition won't give her anything. They wouldn't let her work during high school, so she got two fast food jobs after graduation. She's working up to affording her own car. Then an apartment. Then she can think about college.
The ultimate goal of parenthood is not to coddle or corral a child, but to turn them into an independent adult. Watching your kid's grades like a hawk will provoke undue stress we automatically detach from our own goals for our education. Oh, and it will make teachers hate you.

Parent, let your kids have their own failures and their own success. And kids?
Be successful.
Then own it.

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