What is the best way to approach grades? Do you reward or punish academic performance? I’m sure I’m not the only parent to delve into these questions, and it’s tricky territory, am I right? We have the power as parents to help kids gain confidence as they learn, and every child is so different! Which brings me to the question of the day… should parents reward kids for good grades?

A blog reader sent in this question a while back:

I’ve been thinking about Tiger Mother and how even though I don’t agree with HOW she
approached things, I think there is something to be said for holding our kids to a higher standard. I know my kids probably ARE capable of getting all A’s — so how do I make sure they hold themselves to that standard, too? Or is that the wrong place to focus? My oldest just started first grade, and they have a different grading scale, but basically she got her first report card and it was equivalent to all A’s – I want to reward that, but not sure how, other than to tell her I’m proud. Which maybe is enough… she was really happy when I told her that

I love these types of questions because they are so real. And I think about this a lot especially as the end of the year approaches. Here are my thoughts.

The Importance of Good Grades

I know that in the real world, there are, of course, many other things much more important than than grades. I prize being kind and well-balanced and trying to understand where other people are coming from at the top of my list. But I do want my kids to do their best in school.

I want to hold them up to a higher standard. I’m so ok with kids getting B’s if that really is their best. But in some cases, as a mother, you know very well that a “B” was not their best work. I’m so not ok with kids slacking off just because they think that what they are doing is simply “good enough” or “that’s what all my friends are getting.”  In our family growing up we had a saying that “good is the enemy of BEST.”  My Dad sometimes related that to grades.  Just doing good isn’t enough sometimes.  We should always strive to do our best

Elle came home from school the other day and told me she was worried about one of her classes at school.  Then came this, “Mom, really, a ‘B’ is a decent grade.  Why do you care that we get ‘A’s’ so much?”  And my response was, “Wait, Seriously?”  Because it is like fingernails scraping against a chalkboard when kids tell me that doing “ok” is good enough. Now, she knows very well that I’m ok if she gets a “B” if that’s her best. But she also knew very well that she was not doing her best in that particular class.

So she went ahead and put in the extra effort and got an A.

What does getting an a really mean?

To me, there is so much more to getting an A than just seeing that little triangular letter on your report card.  It’s not just internalizing some information and regurgitating it for a test and then being “done” with that information. 

Call me crazy, but I think part of getting an A is learning how to study. How to talk to the teacher if part of the grade isn’t making sense, or if they miss something and need it explained. Learning how to talk to adults is SO important. It teaches responsibility in getting assignments turned in on time.  It teaches that doing your best is important.

How much pressure should parents put on good grades?

Of course, there are those stories of kids turning off because their parents put so much pressure on them and they just cannot live up to the expectations. But there is a balance between expecting too much and having high standards.

The key, of course, is getting kids to take ownership of their grades. If the parents are always the ones pushing and the kids are doing it for them rather than them doing it for themselves, that’s not doing anyone any good. 

The trick is figuring out what will make the relationship to good grades and lots of learning click in a child or teen’s mind to equal a happy, educated life with so many more options opened up to them. And every child is completely different in what will help them come to that realization. Parents have to be the judge on how long to keep the “training wheels” on.

Parenting and Grades

In our pondering and striving to be deliberate about this, Dave and I have done a lot of digging as to how other parents do this grade thing.  We have found that everyone has a different tactic, and that those tactics don’t necessarily translate to the same cause/effect response. Some parents pay their kids for grades. Others ignore them all together. Some opt to “reward” with quality time together: a special dinner out, or extra privileges. Another idea is to put money in a fund for college in conjunction with good grades.

We found that it really boils down to these 3 options.

  • Do you dangle a carrot in front of your kids and give them all sorts of rewards for getting good grades with a hope that translates into them wanting to do it with no reward in the future?
  • Do you punish them for bad grades? For the record, I definitely don’t think that’s the answer.
  • Or do you pat them on the back and say “Wow, you should feel so proud of yourself! So many doors will be opened to you in the future because you are working your brain so well and applying yourself to your studies.” 

The last one is the prize-winner in my book. That’s what happened in my family growing up…the good grade and the feeling of accomplishment was the reward, not money. I think it worked great.

The interesting thing is that there are amazing results and not-so-great results any way you go about it. Every family will have different things that work. And that’s ok. What matters is that the kids are learning as much as they possibly can. 

The rest is just icing on the cake.

Big Parenting Questions We’ve talked about on the blog

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  1. If B is just okay what is C?

    What about Lucy? I have a little boy will needs. He isn't going to test well. Or get lots of A's. Further getting into college is based on test scores. Grades are part of admission but a straight B child could score better than a straight A child.

  2. I agree, kids know when they have not done their 'best' and sometimes they think it's OK.. it's not! I came from a family where education was not pushed really, and I didn't try, no where near as much as i could have… Ugh, if i could do high school again!! But i learned that from my past, and refuse to let me kids think not getting the best education is OK. I was laying in bed the other night, thinking about my oldeat applying for colleges around the world ( I want her to go to BYU.. oops maybe that was my dream), and she's only 8.. but i want them to know how important that it.

    Now books….
    I wrote to your mom and told her this, but i 100% believe that ' I didn't plan to be a witch' should have a big new re-release launch. I didn't know it was out there, until you mentioned it in a previous post. I really beleive when you leave the hospital with a new baby, that book should be sent along with that new born LOL…
    So please Linda, RE- RELEASE IT!!!

  3. A great book about helping your kids take ownership of their grades and their education is Mindset by by Carol S. Dweck (who was even quoted in General Conference recently in the talk on To Be or Not To Be).

    The book explains how to talk to kids about their efforts rather than their smarts. So many kids are afraid to try because they think if they fail, they weren't smart enough—and, crazily, this often happens because we, as loving parents, tell them how "smart" they are all the time.

  4. You have a wonderful perspective on just giving lots of praise and expecting your kids to do their best. That's really the best method. And growing up, that's what my parents did, and I think I turned out alright 🙂

    When our children started getting report cards, we wanted to do something a little more tangible, but we definitely didn't want to pay for grades. Our tradition turned out to be a family dinner at a restaurant (something that only happened on this occasion) with everyone who improved from their previous report card. This was our way of planning ahead in case for one of our children "C" grades were their best; as long as their grades were improving, they'd be eligible. This system also allowed us to meet the needs of elementary and high school students at the same time – it didn't matter if the scale was A,B,C or S/NI, and we could include the conduct grades as well. Our youngest graduated from high school this week; I'm a little sad we've reached the end of this tradition. We have some great memories!

  5. The one thing that always motivated me through school and other pursuits is the end result and recognition, because I've always been a very competitive person. I've found that I'm still the same way today! I remember in school seeing the nationally-recognized by-tryout-only madrigal choir perform for the first time and knowing I just HAD to be a part of that, because it was the best. When I attended my older brother's high school graduation and I saw the students with highest honors sitting on the stage wearing their special garb, I knew THAT was where I wanted to be when I graduated. Even now that I'm a grownup, I saw my husband run a 10k and I was bound and determined that I could do it too- I was unable to even run 1 mile at the time, but that just made the challenge more appealing, and 2 years later I ran the whole thing.

    So anyway, I don't know if this is just a "me" thing, but I know your kids are involved in competitive sports so they probably have a competitive streak. I'm sure there's something inherently wrong with wanting to accomplish something to be better than someone else, but for me it's more like I do things just to prove to myself that I can, to prove that I'm not lesser than those who do those things, and when the people around me don't strive for those things, or say that they can't, then I get frustrated and think, "Come on! If I can do it, YOU can do it!"

    Just a few thoughts on the subject. 😉

  6. My oldest three children were all straight A studedents. They were capable and my husband and I taught them to go the extra mile and always do their best, and an A for those children were their best. My youngest son was different. He struggled so hard in school when he was little. We found out when he was five or six that he has a learning disablity and sometimes processing and retaining information is difficult for him. Now he is in high school and he has/is learning how use the tools available to him to help him do his best. He just finished his second year of high school and just got his first C. All of his other grades were As and Bs. He was unhappy with the C but told me that he really felt he had done his best in a tough class so we are totally OK with that. There may be more Cs in his future as his classes get harder, but I know he is doing his best always, emphasizing his strengths and minimizing the weaknesses. After all, that is all God, the father of us all, requires of us. Thanks for this thought provoking post.

  7. I think you're right that a B or a C or even a D is okay if they really tried their best and you will know this by the look on their face when they tell you the grade. You will see either the disappointment, or the embarrassment.

    I think as parents we must truly try to tell the difference because it is not fair to make a child feel bad about themselves when they have tried their best.

  8. I think parents can influence to a degree, but some kids just want to please more or do their best or what have you. We actually have a bit of the opposite with our oldest – she is a perfectionist and pushes herself very hard, to the point it worries me.

    My parents did give me money for grades but it was never a sure thing – so I didn't feel motivated by it.

    The hardest thing with grades for me is the difference between my children. One of my children just won't get A's – he's extremely smart but tests badly, struggles horribly with focus and accomplishing work so I don't focus on the grade, I focus on effort and small improvements.

    Many successful individuals didn't do well in school but they had a drive that served them well.

    I completely agree that each family needs to find their way and I'd also say each child might be treated differently depending on ability or their circumstances at the time. But for me, all kids need to be motivated to give their best effort.

  9. My oldest child was honored with a prestigious scholarship last year and someone asked me what I was going to buy her for a reward. What? The scholarship is the reward! (for all the hard work that came before)
    We take our kids out for dinner every year to celebrate another year of good report cards. We don't define it any more than that.
    (I was reading your other comments and the *competitive personality* one reminded me that I read somewhere that Steven Covey's family put their report cards on the fridge, and nothing was really said, but seeing siblings do well was motivational to do well yourself.)

  10. Hi Shawni, my mum went to heaven six days ago after a double organ failure. I miss her at the most random of moments and locations. I am comforted by the fact she is in a better place without pain and the ability to talk and walk. I am grateful she passed peacefully.
    I just want you know that this blog is so important for more than just recording your life and thoughts for your loved ones. I have no sisters and my mum's family is all overseas. This blog is wonderful as a christian woman in seeking encouragement and comfort. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

    Take care and God Bless

  11. I can recall my mom speaking with a high school teacher of mine – my mother was upset the teacher had given me an A on a project. My parents' priority was always that we do our best – and I had put no effort into the project whatsoever, and was still rewarded with an A grade. I have to tell you how surprised the teacher was – she had never had anyone complain about an A before! She felt her hands were tied because according to the grade level and the class, it was worthy of an A. But I never forgot that lesson from my mother about how effort outstrips the grade every time!

  12. Thank you for your honesty. I love the Tiger Mom's approach of expecting the best. I also agree with you about kindness, well-balance (ness) and a knowing how to talk to adults are important, too. My child is not in school yet, but we will be expecting As from our children and will help coach them on how to achieve them. I think it's vital to know how to talk to your superiors and find out their expectations so you can reach them. It's a vital part of life. And it's absolutely fulfilling to have your parents believe in you so much to push you beyond what you think you can do. It helps us push for higher standards and goalsl.

  13. Brilliant. This post is just inspired. Thank you. And, by the way, your mother, joy school, your parents' books, pretty much changed my life. I wish those books were available in Italian (I have considered contacting your parents in the past to inquire about that. They are MUCH needed there and of course anywhere). I keep talking about them with my sisters in law back in Italy and I do my best to communicate the principles I have found in there, but it is not quite the same thing.
    You and your family are amazing…and what amazes me the most is that this all started with a couple who simply wanted to give their children and their posterity the very best.
    Take care!

  14. At my secondary school, we got two grades – one a letter grade for achievement based on the academic scale used for testing us, and one a number grade for effort. I remember being really upset that I'd got a 2 for effort in physical education – I had worked hard and my fitness had improved quite a lot. I don't even remember what letter grade I got, if they even gave those for PE, but I do vividly remember going to my teacher and asking why I had only got 2 and what I could do to improve. She told me they only gave 1s for people who took part in extra-curricular sports, which had me spitting feathers with fury because they wouldn't let me join the hockey team as I wasn't good enough! It felt so unfair that even my effort grade was being based on my achievement, in such a back-handed way. Interestingly, the next term I got a 1 for effort…

  15. My oldest daughter just graduated from high school last week. It was wonderful and awful, all at the same time, for the reasons you mentioned in your "end of summer" post. She's my only girl, and she's been such a joy to raise. I'm sad that that part of our relationship is over. She graduated Valedictorian, with a 4.5GPA, lots of leadership experience, and extra-curricular activities. She had straight As all through high school and took enough AP classes that she would begin school as a Sophomore at BYU, even knowing that the Ivies wouldn't accept that credit. She really wanted to go to an Ivy League and we spent an enormous amount of time filling out applications, writing essays, and paying fees. She didn't get accepted to a single one. She's going to BYU in Provo in the fall, with a scholarship, (and as a sophomore) so the hard work did pay off, not to mention she's great at hard work and studying! I was shocked that she didn't get in to any of them, thinking, "What does a person have to do, open an orphanage in a third world country?" Maybe? I do know that this was a record-breaking year for applications for the freshman class, with each school receiving between 30-40,000 applications!!!!??!!! She really wanted to go to one of those schools, and she also was okay going to BYU. We knew the odds were stacked against her just because of how competitive those schools are, but I figured, if she didn't try, she'd always wonder, and if she was supposed to get in, she would have. She certainly couldn't have worked any harder and looked more impressive. So, I tell her now, that I guess Heavenly Father wants her at BYU!

    I agree with you about pushing your kids to do their best. That should be the standard. I have paid for grades before, but so sporadically that it's nothing to count on, and besides that, the money went into their college/mission funds. I have seen the self-esteem and confidence that comes from hard work well done, and that is the best reward.

    (BTW? You're so awesome!)

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