Ten Cents an A

There are lots of things about being a parent that aren’t so great: breaking up brawls, teaching people how to eat with utensils, waking up in the middle of the night multiple times because someone’s teeth hurt, explaining over and over why you can’t call your brother a bastard, that sort of thing. The sheer physical and emotional drudgery of parenting is overwhelming sometimes — who knew you’d spend a decade between your mid-thirties and mid-forties (having chosen to have children late) actually carrying other people around?

But one of the consolations of being a parent is the many chances at redemption it offers you. If your own parents’ chosen method of discipline was humiliating, you can do it differently. If you didn’t like camping in the rain, well, you don’t have to foist that on your own children. The trouble is, though, that sometimes you are guided by instinct and then you miss completely your moment of redemption.

That’s what happened last night when my eleven year old son told me he’d gotten a “C” on a math test. (A C, for those of you who are not American, is for scores in the 70-80% range.) He hadn’t studied, he said, because his smaller brother had wanted his company. This is the first year they’ve ever gotten grades, and they’re still feeling their way. He honestly didn’t know what the “C” might mean in our family.

But I did. And that’s how I came to say something (several times, in fact, because I wanted to make sure I was understood) I wish I hadn’t: I expect each of you to get A’s. Always.  

I knew from the look on their faces, the crestfallen look on the boy who got the C and the look of horror on the face of his twin, who often cannot even FIND his homework, let alone do it perfectly, that I was headed somewhere wrong. It took me a few moments to see it and for that I am grateful, because when you can see yourself heading in the wrong direction, you can sometimes steer clear of the cliff you’re about to throw yourself off.

Let me say that I did get A’s. My entire childhood. I got a dime for each one of them and a lot of parental and teacher approval. I was a younger child and that meant a lot to me. I was quiet and neat and obedient and I watched the adults like a hawk to figure out what would please them.  As a result, I was awash in dimes.

My sons are not like this. They’re wild and messy.  Sometimes they’re pretty clever. Other times you wonder how they can dress themselves in the morning. I have tried to get them to be otherwise, but they resist with so much gusto, that I can’t quite bear to squelch their messiness and noise with the weapons at hand.  (Cutting off food, or access to the computer, for example.)  Also, over time, I have seen that my own pursuit of the A meant I missed out on something that really matters to me now. I didn’t write, the way I’d wanted to when I was a child, because I wanted to succeed in the world: I wanted the adults to give me dimes. They did not give dimes for stories.  I became a lawyer instead, the career that’s designed for people who know how to and need to get A’s (and the dimes that morph into dollars). It took me years to make space to write. I regret that, but not so much that I’m paralyzed by it, or unwilling to try to fix it.

Yesterday, though, I saw where it started — with my parents’ reaction to my grades and my own hunger to make them happy. And I also saw how that could go wrong for a child who isn’t neat and obedient. This is the place where they begin to define themselves as stupid beause they don’t happen to have the skills that make you a success in school (those skills include the ability to focus on things you’re not always interested in, neat handwriting, a body that can take sitting still, and a natural interest in topics that not everyone finds interesting, like the dates when things happened in history.)  I don’t want it to be like that for them. 

And so we crafted a makeshift family policy around grades last night, one that I hope makes room for them to be who they are, but also encourages them to develop discipline, a character trait that will help them in whatever they choose to do. It’s this: You must do your homework and study for tests as well as you are able. If you do your best, that is enough. But, while you do that, you must be on the look out for the thing you love to do. Because that’s your real job as a human being: to find something — maybe even more than one thing — that gives you so much pleasure that when you do it (and if you’re lucky, earn your living at it) it doesn’t feel like work, but like play.

And that’s it. The grade is secondary as long as you have done your best. How’s that? It may seem like a small thing, but it was a moment of redemption that more than made up for the nights of being wakened by small people with toothaches. The hard thing now will be handling my discomfort with grades that are not always perfect, and letting my children choose vocations I’m not so sure about.  I don’t think that’s going to be easy.  I don’t want them to be feckless people, or people who don’t know how to care for themselves or earn a living.  I wonder how I’ll feel when they come to me and say they’ve taken a job in Alaska working on a fishing boat so they have time to write music.  Perhaps this will be a moment of redemption.  That’s my hope, anyway.

(I’d like to add that my own parents’ love of learning and delight in scholary success was also a gift to each of us.    They took us to the library every week and never told us what to read or what not to read.  My father read all the time and was an example of how much you can discover about the world from books.  My mother worked really hard at her jobs with real integrity.  And she is very, very good at math.  The money for the A’s?  I’m sure she thought it would be a good way to teach multiplication.) 


25 thoughts on “Ten Cents an A

  1. BL,

    Sounds like a recipe for a well rounded child! Must indicate a well adjusted parent!

    My mother was all about ensuring we were personally happy even if that meant non-convential paths. I think it pays off.


  2. Oh, I don’t know about being well-adjusted. Sometimes I feel like a person living in a foreign country — one where I really don’t understand the language and the customs! But I’m hoping to produce slightly better adjusted people, despite the fact that I know that project often doesn’t work out as one hopes.  (Your mother sounds really great, by the way.  And it’s good to know her decision to encourage you to go your own way paid off for you!)

  3. Oh, parenting must be so hard! If I had a child who wanted to be a football player or really loved Kevin Federline, I would want to throw myself off the nearest bridge. How to give guidance without stifling individuality? A moving line, I guess.

  4. You got money for As? I didn’t. 🙂 As the oldest child, I was the one who didn’t really care about grades. I was more into having a good time and getting away from the family. This caused me to not have a college education, and had me married at 18 to a man I didn’t really love or want. I lasted 15 years doing that, but did finally figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was around 35.

    I had grandchildren while you were having children. Sometimes I think it was better to have them earlier while I had more stamina. Now the three grandchildren live a mile away and the other two are in Tacoma.

    It must have been hard having to live up to the brother’s grades. Mike and I certainly didn’t. 🙂 But I’m ok with it now. I got out of there while Dad was just barely out of the AF, while Mom went back to work after Germany.

    The boys are great kids. I haven’t seen them in a few years, but you and W. are doing a great job raising them. They’ll find their own bliss.

    Then again, there is no reason why people can’t have multiple careers or doing something different.

    Maybe in a few years I’ll write a book. 🙂 But for now I’m content with what I’m doing.. now if I only didn’t have to *work* with the clients.

  5. I found this post very moving, BL. Thanks to parents like you who are a few steps ahead of me in the parenting game, I get to think about these things in advance and hopefully formulate a similarly sensitive policy. On a daily basis, though, I’m still winging it …

  6. Great post bloglily, and I absolutely love your new family policy. I think it’s wonderful to seize this chance to do something differently — your boys are very lucky!

  7. I wanted to get my two cents in before the other fifty people respond this parent-guiding-child challenge. I am impressed mainly that you were immediately aware that you had started in a bad direction with the expectation statement (A’s always in this house). Usually, it’s the next day when we realize what we should have said in most situations where we didn’t say it right. Being that aware of your own speech and its effect on others as you are talking is an amazing skill. Might have something to do with writing with a keen sensitivity to your reader.
    Ignoring your new policy against monetary rewards for good works, I’m going to send you five times two cents for this insightful post.

  8. Lily, this is a beautiful post. I can really relate to it, having also been an “A” child who became a lawyer! It’s hard to let go of that when you have kids. I think you handled it beautifully — your boys are lucky to have you as a mom.

    Can I post this to thinking parent? I’ll credit you of course!

    Take care,


  9. Uh oh LK, that last Cal game awakened nascent football player wanna be genes in my house. I’m keeping quiet about the football and talking about how much I love soccer. As for Kevin, well, he’s flying too low under the radar for my preteens to know about.

    Hi Sue, Yes indeed, cash money. And no, I didn’t save it. It all went to candy. I like how in our family we took such different routes and ended up in very similar places: that is, pretty happy.

    Charlotte, I hope I don’t sound terribly preachy. I guess mostly I just want to see my children pretty happy (that’s my mantra these days…) And sometimes that means having to wrench yourself out of thinking that what worked for you will work for entirely different people (AKA, your children).

    Thank you Dorothy. If they told me they wanted to live in the east, teach people to think and read and write clearly and ride their bikes a lot, I’d be pretty pleased! (Oh, then they’d be you and the Hob!)

    Hey Mr. S — It was the howls of distress that caught me up short, not my own sensitivity as a parent. They’re hard to ignore, my boys. But I’ll take the ten cents, since you’ve been so nice as to listen to my two cents worth (did you read it five times?)

    Julie, One thing I know, but don’t always really truly believe, is that our children are not us and the things that seemed to work for us might not work for them. It’s very hard to trust that. Wanting people to be happy goes far in helping you get there. But it’s a leap of faith, often.

  10. Now I’m trying to think about writing my college essay, after two miserably failed attempts… Nothing like the feeling of your entire future determined by 500 words that must explain who you are as a person. I’ve actually been contemplating writing about my struggles with math. For me, the Bs i get on math tests after hours and hours of studying are far more rewarding than the As i got on English tests with little or no studying. I’m happy to know you’re teaching your sons the same value- who knows, maybe an essay about it will get them into Columbia!

  11. I hope I remember that ‘be on the lookout for the thing you love to do best’ bit when my kid brings home his first D. I was a pretty awful student – I took two years to pass freshman algebra, for instance – which is no big deal now, but was terribly humiliating at the time. That advice would have really helped. So, thank you.

  12. I’d like to read that essay about math! Who knows how anyone can write 500 words that explain who they are? (“I like to get A’s and be paid for it” would probably not have worked very well, although they must have known that from the look of me when I interviewed for college.)

    Ella of the Box O’Books, I hope I remember that bit too! I’m pretty sure I’ll have to do another swerve away from the edge of the cliff when I see the first D. But in the end, as you point out, you do survive those academic bad patches and become an adult where a lot more things define your worth than your grades in school.

  13. I was reading some or other parenting book the other day that suggested you (by which I mean one) should explain to your children that they need to pass everything because that is one of the hoops they have to jump through to get to adulthood but Bs and Cs are fine as long as they aim for an A in the subject they like best. So that way you are encouraging the work ethic in that we all have to sometimes do things we get little out of- but at the same time hopefully encouraging them to develop an ethos of aiming for excellence at the things they like. I think that is probably quite realistic preparation for life where prioritisation is probably always going to be an issue.

    Incidentally I somehow ended up at Law School too after a rather mediocre and rebellious school career & a worrying (for my parents) seemingly aimless early adulthood. So you never know-a stint of fishing in Alaska might merely be a stop off on the way to a flourishing practice as an environmental lawyer.

  14. Oh dear Bloglily – how comforting to find you facing similar problems to myself! We are having a Homework Tussle. My son demands our help with his homework, but then won’t take our advice. I get all task-oriented and try to persuade him to do it the way I think it should be done, he gets very grumpy because he thinks I’m not listening to him. Bad feeling all round. Isn’t it difficult? We haven’t had a redemptive moment yet because I thought it best to let things calm down. But I think I’ll suggest that I’ll help get him set up and see if he knows what he’s supposed to be doing. Then he’s left to it, although he can of course ask for specific help at any time. Well, we can but try. I must say i find the world of boys so utterly alien. I was a straight-A student because I always figured out what people wanted. My son practices the rule of expediency (and I really mean that) unless he’s actually interested, and then he’s splendid. I suppose I want him to be as splendid as I know he can be, all the time. But I can’t want that for him – only he can want that for himself. I don’t know. I have no difficulty enthusing my students, but my son is a different matter entirely!

  15. I find myself saying to my baby: “Clever boy!” every time he does some little thing like bangs toys together or pulls himself up on the sofa. I feel terrible each time I say it. There is a high chance he won’t be clever at all because of the problems at his birth. I don’t want to put pressure on him to be “clever”, or lead him to believe I value “cleverness” above fulfilment of personal potential. I suppose I am on the first step of the journey you are on, Bloglily, which was why I was encouraged to read your post. I had no idea that being a Mammy would raise so many dilemmas! I’m trying very hard to stop myself from praising him as “clever” but it is a reflex action, I suppose because society applauds “clever” children, we all want to be clever etc.

    I was the opposite to you as a child, I was the deliberately awkward one that nobody liked. Subconsciously, I had this dream that my child would be the opposite to me, that he would be the sociable one who would excel at school without even having to try. I’m glad I’ve become aware of this. I don’t want to push him in any direction.

  16. Bloglily,

    I was really moved by this post. I was the A child, too, in the middle of six boys, and it was really my only means of distinguishing myself. (My parents were both A children. And they both became lawyers). I think now I’ve found the things that feel like play to me, but I still have those awkward moments — “Shouldn’t I be working right now?”

    Did I mention I was really, really moved?

  17. I also think it is quite important for parents to all be singing from the same song-sheet when it comes to attitudes towards school/ grades/ careers. My mother always told me that I must find a career that I really wanted to do, and that being happy was important, and never EVER praised me for all the A-grades I brought home by the bucket – in fact, she seemed slightly embarrassed and non-plussed by having an academic daughter. My father pulled a Simone de Beauvoir on me – before I hit puberty he couldn’t have been prouder of his exceedingly bright little princess; after puberty, I was a smart-ass and should get my head out of my books and wear prettier shoes and make-up and have a boyfriend and stop thinking I was so bloody clever. My step-father stayed steadily on the ‘Reed is stupid. And ugly. And stupid’ theme throughout (the poor man had issues. I am beginning to feel vaguely forgiving towards him about half the time now).

    Me, I was thoroughly confused. Was I bright? Was I dumb? Did they WANT me to be bright? Or dumb? Which adult should I be pleasing anyway?

    I think the way you are handling it, with a proper family policy, is wonderful.

  18. >> letting my children choose vocations I’m not so sure about

    That is the kicker of course. I have a friend who is a doctor, who chose to be a doctor in the teeth of sad parental tolerance, who decided to become a doctor as an act of independent rebelion against arueyvedic medicine administered thoughout his childhood by dippy-hippy-artist-dropout parents. His parents still seem totally bemused to have spawned someone as, well, as conformist after all the work they did to strike out for individualism and artistic freedom.

    His grandparents, on the other hand, think it’s wonderful.

    Fortunately, he’s a good and very passionate doctor.

    Doesn’t Kahil Gibran have something about our children not being ours, but arrows that we launch into the world?

    Interesting post bloglily.

  19. Aphra, It’s funny how a parent’s most deeply held belief about who their child should be is the belief the child most passionately wants to throw off. And so indeed the key is to see them as arrows we launch into the world, and their flight as belonging to them.

    Hello Reed, You’re right about parental consistency (as long as they’re consistently right I mean!). It sounds like these things you heard from the adults in your life had so much to do with their own struggles and weaknesses and so little to do with who you truly are. One of the difficulties about becoming an adult is claiming yourself, for better or for worse, and being in charge of the narrative of your life. What I mean by that is no matter what people said about who you are, you are now the one who decides. From your fine writing and thinking, I’d say you’ve chosen to be the thoughtful, smart person you are and lucky us to have the benefit of that.

    AC — How lovely to know you’ve found the work you truly want to do. Good heavens — you’re sandwiched between six boys! I had no idea. I want to hear more about that. I’ll bet you’re an expert on how to deal with the boy (the sweet seven year old baby boy, I should add) who thinks it’s okay to tell his brother he’s a bastard!

    Helen — You’ve put your finger on something very tricky which is how to praise someone in a way that’s helpful to them. An obvious example of this would be the parent who tells a girl how pretty she is without ever saying anything about her acts of generosity or her skill at soccer or her fine way with numbers. Praise can limit children (and adults) by singling out only certain achievements and not others. But love and admiration are part of what people need to grow. I’d say telling sweet Kiko he’s “clever” is another way of telling him he’s fabulous and much loved and I see no harm in that at all! Also, there are so many ways to be clever — there’s charm and persuasiveness and the ability to conjugate French verbs, and make beautiful stories, or fix a car engine. I just think it’s important to make words like “clever” elastic, and insist that there are so many ways to be bright in the world. It’s like the word “rich” which means “having a lot of something” not “having a lot of money.” You can be rich in love, rich in memory, rich in happiness.

    Yes indeed Litlove, being the homework monitor is a major drag for all concerned! I particularly hate those big projects that cannot be finished without parental intervention (how exactly is my child supposed to build a replica of a spanish mission out of toothpaste and toilet paper without some help, I want to know.) The division of responsibility is key and it sounds like you’ve got a good solution. Set him up, let him go, and if he asks for help give it. He then gets to choose what he does with your help, even if it means he messes things up. This is the time for them to experiment with that sort of thing and decide how they’d like it to be, hard as that can be to bear! (It’s a little like eating: you put the healthy food on the table in appropriate amounts. The child decides how much of it to put in his body. –You can’t force someone to eat, not really, anyway, any more than you can force someone to follow your advice, although I have a hard time not trying!)

    Ms. Make Tea — I love knowing you had a “mediocre and rebellious” school career! There are so many routes to the places we end up, aren’t there? And yes, to be terribly good at what you like, and to be competent at what you don’t like is a good thing to aim for.

  20. Oh my! I don’t know how I can help with that. When I was little I was really sensitive to foul mouths and found myself very embarrassed/offended when my older brothers swore, but that didn’t exactly change anything. I was also quite timid. They didn’t change, I just got used to it. So I’m probably not the right person to ask. Ah, I miss them now…

    As for finding the work I want to do….I don’t know exactly, but I think I have a vague idea of the general direction I should be heading.

  21. Hi BlogLily,

    I just wanted to pop in and tell you that I really enjoyed your thoughts today. I do not have children, but I respect and value what I see you doing consciously as a parent, and I realize that it is no easy road to walk. The simple gesture of taking note when you’re heading in the wrong direction, and adjusting your course both for yourself and your children is HUGE – and SO important. I am certain that your boys will find their way.


  22. Great thoughts… I remember those feelings of needing to impress the adults as a child. I was an only child who got a sister late in high-school (step-family) who was smarter, prettier and far more accomplished than I. Of course it made my try harder, and it drove me to do better, but I never found my “path” (still really haven’t…). I don’t think there’s ever any correct answer when it comes to kids and school, b/c of course, my first reaction to your son getting a C in math was “good for him!” I guess that shows just how awful a math student I always was!

  23. It is probably a juggling act between not pushing my kids too far and not being too easy on them. I imagine this will be a tough challenge. On the one hand I don’t want my child to settle for a low grade. On the other hand, I don’t want to force them to be something they are not. My parents did a good job with this, and I hope to as well.

    Nice post!

  24. When I was a young, my parents used cash to reward me for my straight-‘A’ report cards. There were a lot of them in elementary and middle school. In high school there were fewer, until halfway through the door came unhinged.

    Instead of taking pride in my own accomplishments, I worked for the external reward. When it was up to me, I didn’t know how to motivate myself.

    I did, eventually, learn. Now, my wife and I work to instill in our children much the same values you write about here.

    Nicely said!

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