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Math lessons

I was really great at school as a kid...but I'm really lousy at school as a parent. And I was reminded once again of this while sitting at my son's conference yesterday.

Seventh grade has been hard on all of us. Beyond the obvious physical changes -- Happy has grown at least 5" since this summer and now looks me in the eye (yeah, remember I'm super tall!), his voice is weird, he can't get out of his own way -- we're all trying to navigate his ever-changing need for independence. His teachers want him to take more responsibility for his learning, which in theory sounds like a great plan for all kids at this age; they have to not only learn how to learn but also learn how to advocate for their learning.

In reality, though, when you're the world's most laid-back 12-almost-13-year-old who really only wants to listen to music, play drums, video games, and action figures, taking responsibility and advocating for your learning is not highest priority. In fact, if we were to list his priorities, it would likely come in last...right behind brushing teeth and putting on deodorant.

And I suppose a parent who's good at school -- and who recognizes that her kid is not -- would be more heavily involved in her kid's education. I mean, yes, of course I pay attention to the weekly emails that come home, I ask him about what he's working on, I even force him to read every day. We talk about school every night at the dinner table -- our goods, our fails, and our braves. But I don't check the online grade bank every week, nor do I root through his school bag. I trust him when he says he doesn't have homework. And I want him to face the consequences when he doesn't do the work.

I don't hover. It's not my style. But my big take-away from yesterday's conference: More hovering might be needed. At least, I need to pay closer attention throughout each term, not just at conference time.

Here's the thing, though: I am the child of a mother who intervened at every step of my education, who looked over my shoulder while I wrote my 2nd grade report on tigers and suggested I re-draw the illustrations, who stormed into my high school and screamed at the gym teacher when I got a C+ my junior year, who called the university dean to complain about my honors schedule my freshman year. I know she meant all the best, really I do. But I grew up frantic about every grade, never feeling like my work was good enough, and freaking out about anything lower than a 95%. I am a recovering perfectionist. And I am determined to not do that to my children.

My son is failing math, mostly because he hasn't finished the work and because he doesn't take it seriously. There is a piece of me that wants to storm the castle -- I was really annoyed at his math teacher's cavalier attitude during the conference, for instance, and I am disappointed that she didn't reach out to us before now when she saw his grades were suffering -- "it's all online" is not the best answer to a parent's questions, just FYI. Yet there's another part of me that thinks the cavalier math teacher may be seeing more to this than I am. Of course she is; she has the arduous task of standing in front of him and 75 other seventh graders trying to teach math every day.

Happy is doing great in all his other classes...which tells me that he is able to handle the workload. In fact, he is acing all his other classes (if "acing" were even a thing in a proficiency-based grading system). So perhaps he's not taking math seriously. And perhaps I need to stand back and let him fail, then help him learn from the experience. Oh, jeez, that's terrifying, isn't it?

A quick internet search reveals plenty of support for this approach. There's a lot of research to back this learning from failure thing, as scary as it may be for us recovering perfectionists. For instance, this 2016 article from NPR states,

"The more parents believed that failure is debilitating, the more likely their children were to see them as concerned with their performance outcomes and grades rather than their learning and improvement," the study found.


...parents who saw failure as an opportunity were more likely to ask their child what they learned from the quiz, what they still can learn and whether asking the teacher for help would be useful.

See failure as an opportunity -- it's much easier to say, of course, than to actually do. Especially when these mama bear instincts kick in. But I'll keep trying to walk the line between supportive and over-taking. I'll try to help him develop better habits at home, and I'll keep an eye on that stupid online grade portal so I know when he needs a nudge (or a kick, whatever it takes).

So here's what I said to Happy on the way home last night: "You are able to do anything you put your mind to, and Mom and Dad think you are amazing no matter what your report card states. You are funny and kind and creative -- and even though this laid-back thing that you have going on is a pain in the ass when it comes to school work, it's really my favorite thing about you. You take life as it comes; you care for your friends when they need your support; you play drums like a boss; and you're the most patient, loving big brother I've ever known. Also, your hugs make every day better. These are the things that mean the most."

And truly, I'd rather he fail math a hundred times than any of these things change.

Also, I'm learning a lesson from my son's failing grades that my mom didn't have a chance to learn: My son's performance in school doesn't really mean anything about me as a parent (or an education editor or a human, for goodness sake), but how I react and respond and learn from the experience does.


  1. It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job! Happy is lucky to have a parent who values (and helps him value) all of the important parts of who he is, not just his grades!

    1. Thanks - you’re kind. Not sure if I’m doing a wonderful job, but I’m doing a good enough job ;-) And the reason I call him Happy in my blog is because he really is a happy-go-lucky kid - always has been - and I love and admire that about him.

  2. Cool post. I wish I had been a little less intense when my low key Son was in school.

    1. It's not easy for those of us who are intense to be less so for the people we love. And I find I'm more intense because I love them! I'm sure that's what my mom struggled with, too - she wanted the best of everything for me. (My husband is low-key, as well...this is good and bad for me...and our kids!)

  3. Follow your gut. In my view, the family relationships, trust, and life lessons of your approach will take him successfully forward in his life and will far outweigh an "A" in math.


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