Love the learner, not the grade
Rewarding kids for top scores may affect their mental health
When I’m in schools talking to kids about resilience and learning through failure, I usually begin with a quick survey. First, I ask staff and teachers to close their eyes. I then ask the students to raise their hands if they get paid for good grades. Depending on the socio-economic makeup of the district, about 15 to 20 per cent of hands go up.
I then ask them to raise their hands if they get any material thing in exchange for grades; a new iPod or some other shiny enticement. In response, about 20 to 25 per cent of the hands go up. I warn the students that this last question is harder, and I want them to think and search their hearts for an honest answer.
“Raise your hand if you truly believe your parents love you more when you bring home high grades, and love you less when you make low ones.”
I’ve asked this question to thousands of kids, ages 12 to 18, and the percentages still surprise me. Among middle-school children, about 80 per cent believe that, yes, their parents truly love them more when they deliver high grades and less when they make low ones. In high school, the average is about 90 per cent.
I reassure them that for the most part, their perceptions are incorrect, that they are loved no matter what, but we parents often need a moment to come up with the right response to an unexpectedly low grade. Sure, we are disappointed, but that silence they encounter when they bring home a report card littered with B-minuses (Bminus is the new F, haven’t you heard?) does not mean we love them any less.
I’m a parent, however, and I understand the truth behind that pause, even if I don’t want to admit it. That silence is the withdrawal of love based on performance, and our kids hear us loud and clear.
Parenting and sports psychologist Jim Taylor calls it “outcome love,” a transaction in which parents bestow love in exchange for their children’s success and withdraw it as punishment for failures.
Outcome love impedes children’s happiness because despite what parents may say to children about unconditional love, they hear parents most acutely through their actions.
Messages of outcome love don’t shape just kids’ short-term happiness, either.
“Sadly, these messages fuel mental health problems including perfectionism, fear of failure, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, not to mention the reactions of resentment, anger and rejection from the children toward the parents. Even more painfully, this attitude of outcome love becomes internalized and children grow up to be adults who berate themselves for failure and only give self-love when they succeed,” Taylor said in the email.
Of course we are proud of our children’s successes and disappointed in their failures − we aren’t robots. We don’t get much feedback on our parenting, so lacking our own report cards or trophies, it’s tempting to use our children’s success as evidence of our parenting success. However, claiming our children’s successes or failures as our own cheats them out of their experiences and teaches them that our love for them is conditional.
Fortunately, there is a simple way to avoid outcome love. When parents focus on the process of learning over the relatively arbitrary end product of grades and scores, we communicate that we love our children unequivocally.
Rather than gush over a high grade or fume over a low one, for example, focus discussion on what the child did to earn that grade. How did they prepare for the assessment or project? What might they do differently next time? Did they speak with the teacher to get feedback on what worked and what did not? This focus on process over product is particularly helpful for highly anxious or perfectionist kids who tend to get derailed by their intense focus on outcomes.
If we want our children to truly believe us when we say our love is constant, that we value learning more than a number printed in red at the top of a test, we are going to have to put our money (and our unconditional love) where our mouths are.
Parents should focus on what work went into an assignment rather than the grade.