I Want My Kids to Be at the Bottom of Their Class

Boy doing homework with flashcards

'Tis the season! All across America, moms, dads, and guardians recently headed out for their children's first parent/teacher conferences of the year. They hoped to hear that their little darling is, once again, at the top of the class.

Not me.

I always hope my kids are at the bottom.


True confessions time: I'm kind of a groupie fan-girl of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, who wrote the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

The last time I heard her speak, she focused on two different kinds of mindsets. The fixed mindset, which is obsessed with not looking stupid, on getting good grades, on avoiding challenge at any cost, and the growth mindset, where anyone -- child or adult -- believes they can master a difficult task as long as they put in the work and don't give up when the going gets rough.

Her research has shown that children who are praised for being smart quickly develop a fixed mindset. They become afraid of trying new, challenging things for fear that not getting it instantly, and with no visible effort, will strip them of their "smart" designation. Children who are told they're hard workers, on the other hand, tend to develop a growth mindset, and persevere in the face of new challenges.

And perseverance -- or grit, as the University of Pennsylvania's Fulbright scholar Angela Duckworth calls it -- is what it's all about.

Dr. Dweck advises that, when a child brings home a test with 100% proudly scribbled on top, your response should be, "Oh, you must have already known this. I'm sorry we wasted your time."

Because if they're getting every single question right, what are they learning? And, more importantly, what are they learning about learning?

When my 15-year-old high-school-sophomore son whined to me about how hard chemistry was (that's him in his room above, furiously making flash-cards), I asked him, "You mean because you actually have to read the book and take notes for the answers instead of already knowing the answers before you walk into class?"

"Yes," he mumbled sheepishly.

"Good," I said.

My oldest son has always been a more Humanities-leaning kid. So naturally, I sent him to a math and science focused high-school.

His 11-year-old brother is math, science, and computer programming, all the way. So I sent him to a school that puts writing, history, and public speaking ahead of all other subjects.

My almost-8-year old daughter, I sent to a school that teaches the basics -- in two languages (one of which doesn't even use Latin-based characters).

It's not that I want my children to suffer, per se (well, maybe a little). It's that I want them to understand that effort is required to succeed in anything, that some things might come easy -- but others will not, and that, very often in life, you have to do things you may not find interesting in order to build the necessary foundation for ultimately doing what you really want down the line.

I tell one son, "You may develop the most awesome, new computer code known to man, but if you can't convey your concept in written and oral form, no one else will ever know about it."

And I tell my other son, "How exactly do you plan to be a designer and architect whose products won't collapse under their own weight without understanding math and physics?"

Plus, there is the fact that the subjects they love, they'll do anyway, without prodding. My older son reads massive historical tomes and studies maps for fun. My younger one is teaching himself computer programming, algebra, and science through awesome (free!) resources like Kahn Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare. It's the subjects they don't like that I need school for. And it's the subjects they don't like that hold the potential to teach them the most. Inside of the classroom and out.

"But what about their self-esteem?" Curious minds want to know, "Don't you care about them having low self-esteem due to not doing well in school?"

Not really.

In my experience, self-esteem doesn't develop from mastering what comes easy. It develops from mastering what comes hard.

My dream parent/teacher scenario goes like this:

In the fall, my kids are getting C's. That means the material is appropriately challenging, but they're putting in an effort. They're managing to, more or less, keep up, though there is obviously still a long way to go and, hopefully, they're surrounded by kids who know more than they do in order to keep them motivated.

In the winter, I like to see B's. It means they've upped their game. They've finally hit that point where they know what they don't know, and they have come up with a strategy for dealing with it.

Finally, in the spring, an A will be acceptable. As long as it's an A they've worked for and earned honestly. (None of that grade inflation stuff, thank you very much. If my kids deserve a B, give them a B. I won't be offended. And, more importantly, I won't compose a furious, self-righteous email in the middle of the night lamenting that my child's future has been irrevocably ruined and send it to you. And to the dean of students. And to the principal.)

But, if given the choice between a good grade and a child who actually learned something, I'll pick learned something every time. (Even if the only thing they've learned is that they really should study harder next time.)

So, bottom of the class is perfectly fine by me.

In fact, I'm kind of hoping for it.


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