Geeky Boy is graduating from elementary school in just a few weeks. He'll be receiving an award despite his struggles. He's an extraordinarily smart kid and yet, in many areas, he does not make good grades. He's disorganized, messy, and rushes through assignments because he doesn't see the point. As his parents, we don't really push him to make good grades for the sake of good grades. I have issues with homework and many of the assignments seem more like busy work than attempts at getting kids to learn anything.
As Geeky Boy heads to middle school and high school, however, grades become more important. His grades in middle school will determine what courses he can take in high school and his grades in high school will determine (to some extent) where he goes to college. Getting good grades at this stage means opening up opportunities. It's hard to explain that to an eleven year old without making them feel too pressured. (As laid back as Geeky Boy is, though, I doubt he'd feel any pressure). While I feel grades are important, I hate that this is what he will be measured by (and the SAT and other such tests). It doesn't really quite get at what he's capable of (as his elementary experience shows). And too much focus on grades can mean not taking advantage of other opportunities.
The system doesn't leave much room for mistakes. I did really well through middle school. In high school, faced with competing interests, mainly boys and alcohol, I stumbled, unable to juggle a life of fun with a life of good grades. My stumbling left me off of the top ten list and I never considered pursuing other activities such as student government (which might have kept my mind off the boys and the alcohol). I didn't study for the SAT. In fact, if I recall, I went to a Police concert the night before. I got a good, but not stellar score. My grades and my SAT scores meant my "long-shot" school, Dartmouth, was out of the question and even Duke rejected me. But I went to a good liberal arts college and it was really a good fit for me. I thrived for a time, but then, stumbled again (alcohol and boys again) which landed me on academic probation. I worked really hard after that, both because I wanted to get out of academic probabtion, and because I had life-changing events (the death of my sister and the divorce of my parents) that made me feel some motivation for doing well, of seeing the importance of education for its own sake and for the opportunities it could afford me.
I valued the experience I had, even with its mistakes, but I definitely have moments where I think, "If I had just done a little bit better . . ." Those moments happen much less frequently now as I've used my experience in lots of ways to further my current opportunities.
For my children, though, I want to prevent, as much as it is possible to do so, them from having those "if only" moments. I think that means being there for them in a way my parents just weren't. My parents didn't encourage my school work as much as they should and they didn't really help much with the college search. Partly, I think that's for good reasons; they trusted me and my judgement. But partly, I think it was because they didn't have the energy (it turned out this was the beginning of the end for them) and they just didn't know I needed the help.
I don't think this is going to be easy and I definitely want my kids to understand that it's not so much the grades that count but what they represent and the opportunities they allow. And I want to allow them to figure things out for themselves somewhat. I certainly don't want to be a helicopter parent. If you ever see me hovering around my kids, just shoot me.