Friday, October 11, 2013

Micro-managing your child's education: is it a good idea?

The other day, my eldest child--currently in 10th grade--was at her ballet studio, where she not only takes classes but also works (for a handful of hours a week). She watches the younger children, helps with their classes, and also babysits some children when their parent (mom) is in Pilates class. It's a nice gig for her, it really is. Not only does she get paid, she also gets to engage with younger kids (which she loves) and also their parents. This particular day, she was talking with a group of moms about grades. Several of the moms were expressing how much they liked and used the Miami-Dade School System's "parent portal."

Basically, this is a resource the school system provides that allows parents of children in all grades to access all sorts of information, both general and specific. On the specific side, parents can check their children's gradebooks on a daily basis, provided teachers have updated the information. Thus, they often know--if they log in to the portal--what grade a child received on a test as soon as the child knows. Sometimes even sooner. The parents my daughter was talking with--all but one of them--thought this was great. One noted that it allowed her to call her daughter before school was even over apparently to giver her daughter shit about a bad grade (pardon my language).

The one parent who didn't buy in to all of this noted that while she knew about the portal, had signed up for it even, she never used it for checking grades at all. Never. And my daughter chimed in by noting how her parents--my wife and I--were the same way. For while I've also signed up and even longed on to check out the various resources, I've never felt a need to check the grades my children are getting. Their report cards--interim and quarterly--are good enough for me.

But the exchange did get me thinking. I took stock of my own situation, of my children, how they were doing in school, how they felt about things like grades, and how my wife and I approached things with them when it came to school and grades.

I have three children aged 6, 13, and 15 in grades 1st, 8th, and 10th, respectively. Obviously, the first-grader is not in the same sort of situation at all as the other two. Her grades right now won't impact her future in any meaningful way, provided she doesn't get failing ones. Still, she understands grades, what they mean, and wants to do well. And she does.

The eighth-grader is in the last year of middle school, will enter high school next year. He's currently in a magnet program and if he wants to stay in a similar one for high school, his grades do matter. Plus, even if he doesn't stay in a magnet program, his grades are used to determine which level he will be placed in next year for various subjects. His grades do matter, they do impact his future, his choices and options. He's also in the National Junior Honor Society, and he needs to keep his grades up to stay in that organization. And he's aware that they're important now, even though--being a typical thirteen-year-old boy--he'd much rather spend his time playing video games and riding bikes with friends than studying and doing homework.

The oldest is obviously entering a critical period in her academic career. She takes the PSAT this year in preparation for the SAT next year and that oh-so-fun game of applying to colleges. Obviously, her grades matter a great deal. She's also in a very competitive program--an International Baccalaureate school--wherein subpar grades would mean dismissal from it. Entering this program was what she wanted; she went into it with eyes wide open so she's fully aware of how important maintaining her grade point average is, even as she balances school against ballet and--now--work.

All three of them show concern--in different ways--about their grades, their performance in school. All three understand that there is a serious aspect to school, that their teachers are authority figures and should be respected and obeyed. The little one, for instance, takes it very hard whenever she receives any sort of reprimand from a teacher. She tries very hard to follow instructions precisely and actually enjoys doing her homework, even takes pride in doing most of it with little or no help from me. She wants to do well because doing so makes her feel good about herself.

The other two feel the same way, for the most part, but the added pressures on them have had very different sorts of consequences. The middle one now tends to worry--far too much, in my opinion--about his grades, from homework to quizzes to tests, and sometimes gets emotional when he feels he is struggling to understand the material or fears he may not do well on a test. And while I think he goes overboard in this regard, I have to admit that I'm pleased he wants to do well.

The eldest worries a little too, it is true, but is basically so self-motivated to do her best that such worrying is largely inconsequential. She tracks her own grades very closely, knows exactly where she stands in each class, and exactly what she needs to improve or maintain a given grade. Things like extra-credit assignments she does as a matter of course and usually takes the lead in any group projects that are assigned. Obviously, I'm very proud of her.

But really, I'm proud of all three. As I noted above, I don't track their daily grades at all. When it comes to homework, I remind them to get it done (aside from the little one, who needs my help to set up her assignments), but don't really check it. Last year, the middle one was struggling occasionally--due to his own procrastination--and I stepped in to help by requiring him to review his planner with me every day, to make sure he knew what his assignments were. Soon, he got into the habit of doing this all on his own and I no longer involve myself to such a degree (which was still a very small degree, I have learned, compared to many other families).

Here's the thing: we--meaning my wife and myself--have never made school grades a major issue with any of our children. A good report card--meaning A's and B's--garners each child a small reward, usually the ability to choose a family activity (the little one usually ops for a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, and as painful as that might be for the rest of us, that's what we do). But there's no punishment--neither threatened nor given--for a bad grade, on a test, quiz, or report card. When they receive a bad grade--or what they think is a bad grade--our reaction is basically "that's okay, now you know you need to study a little better next time if you want a better grade; the important thing is just doing your best." The net result of our approach: three children who routinely get nothing but A's and B's on every report card (mostly A's). A "C" is an exceedingly rare event, a "D" or an "F" unheard of.

I realize all children are different, just as all people are, but I can't help wondering about the apparent dichotomy here, the micro-managing engaged in by some parents compared to the relatively minimalist approach we've used. To be sure, there's a line here, wherein the latter sort of approach becomes a wholly disconnected one, where parents are basically completely uninvolved with the education of their children. That can't be a good thing. Still, the anecdotal evidence I have--based also on my upbringing, that of my wife, and of many childhood friends--suggests that too much parental involvement yields no additional benefits and may actually be harmful.

We spend a great deal of time, energy, and--let's face it--money on our children's education. But how much of these things is being spent wisely, that's the question. Consider the Miami-Dade School System's Parent Portal. It's trumpeted and pushed by schools as a Good Thing, but is it? Is it a wise use of resources (I know it costs millions to set up and maintain)? Does it promote the right kind of parental involvement in education? I have my doubts.

Cheers, all.


  1. Both our kids' schools have that. My wife knows the passwords and checks all the time. I never do. I don't need to, because she does. But I do see a value in it. You can notice trends. You can see if they're having trouble in certain subjects and ask them about it or ask the teacher about it -- instead of waiting until parent/teacher conferences, which are often too late if the child is having issues because the child has already fallen behind.

    Consider yourself either lucky or a incredibly gifted parent to be a minimalist and have such great grades.

    I disagree with that one parent who is calling the child before school is even over. That's OCD.

  2. I'm not prepared to say anything definitive here, Ed. As I said, I have doubts about the efficacy of the Parent Portal and question if it's the best use of resources. Different opinions and experiences--like yours--are welcome. :)