Grades Aren’t The Most Important Thing In The World (Really)


“Give me an idea for a story,” I said to my oldest son. “I’m stumped.”

“How about grades?” he rallied back.

“What? Grades?” I was confused. I had just spent the afternoon in parent-teacher conferences at his high school. “I’m not going to write about your grades!”

“No, no. What do you think about grades?”

I was regretting having asked for his suggestion because grades are a real sore subject with me. It didn’t used to be that way, however. As a kid, I thought grades were the alpha and omega of life. And I was a really good student, with the grades to back up that statement. But guess what? Since the day I graduated from college, not one person has ever asked me about my grades. Zero. Zippo. Nada.

So why is it that we (that’s a collective “we” — as in our society) make such a stink about them?

The good grades I cherished as a kid were mostly a result of me knowing how to get good grades. I kept a very keen eye on my GPA. I was the master of last minute studying. And I could stuff a boatload of facts and data in to my brain and hold it there for a good 24 hours. Just long enough to ace one more test. The problem with that strategy was that by hour 25, my retention was beginning to turn to mush.

How stupid was that?

In reality, my good grades were a reflection of me being a good test taker, not a good student. Certainly not an engaged learner. And I’ve felt guilty about that a long, long time.

A private guilt of sorts.

It wasn’t until my own children hit middle school that those memories of grades — and that guilt — started to crawl back underneath my skin.

I’d listen to teenage kids talk to each other about their grades.

“I’m not going to worry about this project. I can get a 64% and I’ll still have an “A” average in the class.”

I’d cringe.

“I’m not going to study for the mid-term because it can’t hurt my grade.”

Dear Lord, my children were turning into the younger version of myself.

Not that I could blame them.

Most everything in their world is measured by some kind of grading system. And it seems the focus on “getting into college” and “college applications” creeps into our children’s heads earlier and earlier. We lead our kids to believe that success in life is measured by grades. And grades alone.

Little do those unsuspecting minds know that somewhere in the path of life, people will stop asking about their grades. Just as I learned after shaking the hand of the Dean of my school the first and only time in my life.

So grades be gone?

Of course not. They matter. For sure. But they’re just part of the puzzle.

Studies regularly confirm that it’s things like character that counts. Stuff like curiosity. Grit. An inquisitive nature. Persistence. And kids who have strong qualities of character often do well scholastically. Perform well. Retain well.

That’s what I want for my kids.

Far more than just good grades that no one ever really asks about.

I want them to enjoy their education journey. I want them to be exposed to interesting teachers. I want them to love learning. I want them to be open to others’ ideas. And I want them to have some fun along the way.

That might explain to all of my son’s teachers today why — in what feels like the five brief minutes I had with each of them — I was far more interested in asking them if my son was engaged, kind, inquisitive, and curious. I’d much rather hear their perspective in-person on those topics. We can use email for questions about a test or project.

And son, in case you’re reading this story that you suggested let me be perfectly clear: Grades matter. But to a point.

And now that I have your attention, do me a favor and break away from your 40-pound backpack of books. I’d love to sit down with you and tell you that your teachers think you’re terrific, hard working, curious, considerate, and fun.

I do, too. I’m really proud of you.

And do me one other favor: Take a 20-minute break from the homework.

Go enjoy being a kid.

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