Confessions of an Overachieving Parent, Part III

By: Matt Mitchell, Head of School

Dominion offers a compelling college-preparatory education combining the best of the time-tested classical model with the latest beneficial educational options in the context of a Christian worldview. We are passionate about the liberal arts and about helping each child achieve to his or her fullest God-given potential. Yet, we also recognize that the culture of Northern Virginia often creates unique challenges for parents. The following blog post is an installment in a series of reflections that will be posted from Matt Mitchell, our Head of School, as he shares observations, perspectives, and personal experiences in support of balancing the pursuit of excellence with the pursuit of reasonableness.

As parents, we’ve all experienced the weeping and gnashing of teeth that can go into our children’s completion of homework. In my own house, those darling moments haven’t occurred so much in the middle or upper school years (which is where I most often hear about the battles other parents face) but in the younger years, when other parents often report lighter, more reasonable loads. I attribute that to the personalities of my children.

As administrator, I often observe that one of three things are at work when a student (my own children included), struggles with a homework load. First, I’ll admit that in some cases, they simply have too much. Dominion’s faculty members actively, collaboratively, and thoughtfully balance the load every week. On parent surveys, about 80% of our families say that Dominion’s homework load is reasonable. However, that means that 20% of families find the load to be something less manageable. It’s an imperfect dance that requires student feedback and constant tending on our part.

In my observation, the second cause of lengthy study times occurs more frequently. It involves students who tend to over-think, over-analyze, or invest too much time in developing their understanding of class material. Recently, a parent shared that her daughter wants to understand her reading assignments to such a degree that she might as well teach the next day’s lesson rather than sit under our instruction. In more than one setting and on a couple of occasions, I have seen a student leave a school citing a “heavy homework load” only to discover that their new school’s workload was similar. Sadly, the plight of this student is often tied to his or her own perfectionism. Wherever these students go, they find themselves.

The third cause of lengthy homework is the most frequently observed, but it is also the most challenging to discuss. It can be offensive to surface it, particularly if you are an overachieving parent like I am. Too many students invest unreasonably in their homework because they are B students who are trying to earn all A’s or C students who press themselves to earn B’s. I am all for setting a high bar, particularly for the student who can reach it with reasonable effort. However, somewhere along the way, we have lost the notions of living a balanced life, of achieving to one’s potential, and of reasonableness. Sometimes, a “B” is worth pursuing.

“When your report card comes, I expect all A’s,” the young Matt Mitchell told his children. With experience, observation, and maturity, I’ve mellowed. I have now worked with many seniors who graduated, went to college, and entered their respective professions – and many of them were B or C students. If a child has character and if his or her work ethic is strong and reasonable, then he or she will almost certainly flourish. The K-12 GPA is not often the primary predictor of success beyond high school.

To some extent, I am convinced that we need to de-emphasize grades with many of our children. We need to give them the space to invest reasonably in homework and then release it.

Even as I write this blog entry, one of my children is reviewing a memory verse for Bible class. Among my four children, he has the most challenging time with memory work. Information simply will not stick like it does for my other kids. Moments ago, I started to drive him to review the verses for hours on end. Then, in a rare moment of clarity and wisdom, I caught myself. At what cost am I pushing him? Is it worth sacrificing his enthusiasm for learning in order to earn an “A” on a Bible quiz? Is it worth extinguishing a love for God’s Word? We stopped, and he went to bed after I coached him on how to prepare to accept a lower grade and to be satisfied with it because he gave it a reasonable effort. I also tried to convey how pleased I was that he gave it such great effort. Again, it was a rare moment, but in my estimation, many of today’s students could use more of that kind of shepherding from the adults in their lives – not because we want them to under-perform, but because we want them to be balanced and reasonable people.

I recognize fully that my comments may sound like admonishment towards underachievement. I hope they will be received instead as a suggested anecdote to an emerging national culture that tells children that their value is tied to what they do, not to who they are in Christ. I hope my remarks might be received as a nudge against an unhealthy obsession with raising children who belong in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone rather than the real world. As an admonition to focus upon progress, not grades. If we focus upon the latter at the expense of the former sends a message that a person’s value is tied to his performance or, worse, to his or her intelligence. That message is damaging not only for your child’s view of self, but also for how he or she will assess the value of others.

Next time your child’s report card arrives, why not consider waiting until he or she asks about it before sharing its contents? If our children generally work hard and manage their homework independently, why not praise their effort rather than their grades? Or, perhaps we can reward their love of learning, not their attainment of an “all A report card.” After all, the most fulfilling education is one that is motivated by the satisfaction that comes through the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and wisdom – not the pursuit of an “A.”