Tell Your Teens That Grades Are Not the Only Measure of Success

When my daughter entered kindergarten, she was a great reader. During her parent-teacher conference, her teacher praised her and told us she was doing “first grade stuff.” I was proud of her, and given the way she sat up straighter and tightened her two sweet hands that were folded together I could tell she was proud too.

She continued to be a great reader and get good marks in school until she entered second grade: her grades started slipping and her teacher became concerned that she was checking out a bit during class. I noticed she didn’t seem to love school like she had before. After asking her in a few different ways what was going on, she told me second grade was “a lot more harder than kindergarten and first grade” and she didn’t love it anymore.

It was obvious she was struggling and as the year went on she said a few times she “wasn’t smart anymore.” Of course, that broke my heart and I told her it wasn’t true and tried everything I could to encourage her. But that feeling of being really good at school was gone, and in many ways, she seemed to have given up.

Grades are not the only measure of success
Teens need to be reminded that grades are not the only demonstration of intelligence. (Shutterstock/VGstockstudio)

Now that she is a teenager, I can see she hasn’t totally recovered from not feeling smart in the second grade. When her grades aren’t excellent, she thinks that she isn’t intelligent, and she stops trying. She’s even said out loud she’s not one of the smart kids despite the fact that her grades for effort are almost always perfect.

I know she’s not the only child (or parent) who feels that grades measure intelligence but we need to stop teaching our teens that the two are super glued together.

Some kids are able to achieve perfect grades without much effort-things come naturally and easily to them. Are these kids intelligent? Probably. But do they end up succeeding in life? Maybe. If good grades, in and of themselves, do not correlate with success in life, what then does?

In The Secret To Raising Smart Kids, published in Scientific American, Carol Dweck explains that 35 years of scientific research shows that the pathway to success in academics, athletics, in work-life and even in marriage is a “‘growth mind-set,’ which encourages a focus on ‘process’ (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent…”

In essence, when children are taught that lack of effort rather than lack of ability makes them get wrong answers they are incentivized to keep trying. And the skill they learn from that continued effort, the skill of motivation or perseverance in the face of difficulty is what sets them up for success in life.

“Helplessness, it turns out, can also be learned. When kids are told early on that they are gifted, they begin to shy away from difficult problems for fear of losing their gifted status. So when they coast through the early years of school with little effort, as the work becomes harder they lose motivation because they see effort as a threat to their gifted label.

“Ultimately Dr Dweck’s research boils to “two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented.”  “Helpless” students believe that intelligence is a fixed trait and therefore any mistake they make is attributed to lack of ability. Since they are powerless to change their “fixed” intelligence they avoid challenges for fear of looking stupid. They basically throw in the towel on success.

“On the other hand, “mastery-oriented” children believe that intelligence can be developed through education and hard work. For these children, “Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set…were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.”

“So we see that a focus on learning, effort and persistence is more important for future success than a focus on grades. Before you praise your children’s grades, praise their effort. And do it with specificity. Telling your teens that they are smart is not helpful. Tell them instead that you like the specific thing they have done, the way they organized themselves, the way they worked well with a group, the way they kept at it in the face of difficulty. Tell them that you like the way they learned from their mistakes. In the end it is the students who placed a premium on hard work, learning and discipline rather than on showboating who succeed.

“I truly believe that when my daughter entered the second grade, and went from being at the top of her class to not knowing all the answers, she felt like her trophy was being taken away. She didn’t want to work hard to achieve good grades since she’d never had to do that before and she was left feeling less-than.

“We need to teach our kids that success in life doesn’t only come from getting good grades. It comes from working hard, failing but ultimately learning. It comes from developing disciplined work habits and resilience.

“We need to tell our teens that it’s okay if their grades aren’t stellar because struggling is an important life-skill. Working hard and having less than perfect marks but persisting is critical. Having our children strive to do their best and emphasizing learning over grades should be the goal. Intelligence is not immutable; every child is smart, every child has their gifts and we need to encourage them to persevere even when the going gets tough because what matters is not the grade on the report card, but how they got there.

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About Katie BinghamSmith

Katie Bingham-Smith lives in Maine with her three kids. She is a Staff Writer at Scary Mommy, shoe addict and pays her kids to rub her feet. You can see more of her on Facebook and Instagram .

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