Making the Parenting Grade
Before I became a parent, there were things I swore I would never do: let my child yell in a restaurant, give in to a temper tantrum, use TV as a baby-sitter, do my child’s homework for her. These are, of course, good goals, and I still try to stick to them, but the 24/7 nature of parenting makes fools out of all of us. Being a mom has made me more tolerant of some things – I never, ever, ever judge any parent whose kid is freaking out in Target – but I am now completely disgusted by parents who take their young kids to violent movies, especially late at night. A couple years back, there was a 2-year-old at the midnight screening of "Human Centipede"; that movie isn’t appropriate for anyone, at any age, but for the love of Pete, no toddler should be out at midnight watching torture porn.
At any rate, when I worked as a tutor in the Columbia, Mo., public schools, I used to see parents who were, in my opinion, entirely too involved in their kids’ schoolwork. There were dads “helping” with elaborate science projects and moms demanding to meet with me to convince me that their struggling students were just misunderstood geniuses. These over-involved parents were, of course, better than the parents who just so clearly didn’t give a shit at all – but just barely.
“Not me,” I resolved. “I am not going to be that kind of parent. My kid will do her own work and succeed or fail on her own steam. I will subscribe to natural consequences. I won’t bring forgotten work to school or write excuse letters. And I for sure won’t get all invested in her grades. If she struggles, I will get her help, but otherwise, I don’t care if she makes all A’s unless it’s important to her.”
Again, I have mostly stuck to this. Yes, there have been a couple of times when I have just been so tired and so ready for Ruby to go to bed that I have stood over her shoulder and basically done her homework for her. Yes, I once brought her forgotten library book to school. Parenting has taught me to never say never, but it hasn’t radically changed my ideals; rather it just made me realize that ideals can’t always withstand the rigors of real life, a lesson I had already learned about pretty much everything else anyway.
On my better days, though, I have calmly told Ruby that it’s her homework, not mine. “I already went to kindergarten,” I tell her, even knowing how annoying and momish I sound. “I don’t need to learn how to subtract. If you don’t want to finish it, you can explain it to Ms. Millet. But I am not going to do it for you.”
Grades are a different matter. I was extremely grade-driven all the way through graduate school. I still have my sixth-grade trophy for making straight A’s, and although it now is shoved in a closet somewhere, I would never throw it away. I can tell myself that Ruby’s grades are hers alone, but I am not yet sure I will believe that. So far, I haven’t had to worry about it because her grades have been excellent – in kindergarten, they don’t use the traditional A, B, C system; they use E for exceeds expectations, ME for meets expectations and N for needs improvement, and her final school report card for this year was almost all E’s. She had, I noted, two ME’s. One was in reading, which made sense to me because Ruby is an OK reader but clearly not yet fluent. The other was in math, which confused me because she is really good at math (“I have to do good in math to be a pediatric brain surgeon,” she tells me).
When I called her dad to tell him her grades, I mentioned the math grade. “It doesn’t really make sense, but even I,” I said, laughing, “can’t contest a kindergarten math grade.”
“Good,” he said. “Don’t do that.”
“Haha, no,” I said. “Definitely not.”
I hung up. I picked the report card up again and squinted at it. I set it down. I picked my phone back up again and emailed her teacher.
I was very nice! I swear! I just said that I was wondering if she could explain the math grade to me because I was curious what went into the grade and if there was anything Ruby and I should be working on over the summer. I thanked her for being such a great teacher. I wished her a good vacation.
And because it really wasn’t just empty flattery – she is an amazing teacher – she emailed me back within 10 minutes and promised to look into it. She emailed me back 15 minutes after that to tell me that the grade was a mistake. Another kid in the class had accidentally deleted her first rounds of grades, she said, and so she did the second round hastily. I think the word “hero” is overused, but I am being quite serious when I say that Ms. Millet is a hero.
A part of me is kind of ashamed that I bugged the poor heroic teacher on her vacation to question a kindergarten math grade. But a part of me is pleased with myself for advocating for my kid: The grade was an error. It’s not like I contested her reading grade. That one wasn’t an E, but it was a fair and understandable grade.
And I guess that is my ultimate goal as a parent, even if smaller day-by-day goals fall by the wayside. Just like Ruby’s report card, I don’t want to be perfect; I want to be fair.