March 4, 2020

Questioning Conventional Wisdom in Parenting Part 6: Should you encourage straight A’s?

By Devon MacEachron

You’ve probably heard the saying: "A students work for B students at companies founded by C students." I was incredulous when I first heard it. I was taught growing up that being on the honor roll was an expected and worthwhile goal.

But is it? Should we encourage our children to work for A’s? Do grades really matter?

Let’s unpack the reasons for and against encouraging your child to achieve honor roll grades.

Reasons why straight A’s could be beneficial:

1. To build self-esteem. Some children feel better about themselves when they’ve done their best and are on the honor roll or valedictorian. Particularly if they aren’t a super-star at sports or some other activity valued by their community, being good at something (even if it’s not the coolest thing to be good at) can provide much-needed self-esteem.

2. To motivate greater effort. Striving for top grades can motivate students to work harder. This kind of motivation is extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is doing something to gain a reward or avoid adverse outcomes. There are pluses and minuses to doing things for extrinsic reasons.

3. To get into a good college or earn a merit scholarship. Yes, top grades are pretty important for this purpose, but they aren’t everything. Some students can pursue their interests, building passions into accomplishments, and gain admission on that basis.

4. To get the job you eventually want. It’s questionable to what extent employers actually care about grades. This article in the Journal of Business Economics and Management reported that employers value soft skills (personality and other qualities) more than strong academic records. The experience of recent graduates I know shows that even when employers specify a gpa minimum in a job description, it’s really more of a guideline than a rule.

Reasons why straight A’s could be detrimental:

1. Can lead to anxiety, depression, and worse. The book Doing School: How we are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students  by Denise Clark Pope brings home that point. Seriously.

2. Takes attention away from true learning. In this study, 8 times as many students felt grades hindered rather than helped learning. Focusing on grades made them less willing to experiment, make mistakes, and disagree with their teacher. Numerous studies have reported that a “grading orientation” and a “learning orientation” are inversely related. In the book A Separate Peace by John Knowles, when the narrator Gene decides he wants to be valedictorian, he dismisses one of his smartest classmates, Chet Douglas, as too interested in learning for its own sake to be serious competition.

3. Can turn the child into a "people pleaser" rather than a critical thinker. Playing the game by rules established by teachers and parents can turn students into “people pleasers.” Such students are less likely to question critically, “How can I be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?”

4. Extrinsic motivation can take over from intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to an inherent interest in pursuing a topic (“learning for learning’s sake”). Intrinsic motivation can be driven by a passion for the subject, curiosity, a sense of its relevance to life, and/or pleasure gained from the accomplishment of mastering a challenge. Intrinsic motivation tends to be longer-lasting and self-sustaining than extrinsic motivation. It also tends to make people happier.

5. Can take time away from the pursuit of other  interests. I remember calling my 9-year old daughter in from the garden where she’d been filming the paths of garden snails for hours on end to get her pointless (in my opinion) homework done.

So, where do I come out on this topic? For or against encouraging children to earn top grades?

I now believe there’s more benefit to not emphasizing grades. I have to admit, though, that as a parent I didn’t have the courage to act on that belief. I wanted to hedge my children’s bets - somehow keep the love of learning and intrinsic motivation alive while also instilling a drive to achieve and strong enough grades to get into selective colleges. It turned out o.k. (I think). But as both children are in fields where grades and where you went to college are pretty much irrelevant, it may have been a waste of valuable time that could have been better spent following the paths of garden snails.


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